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The Hester Street Fair’s Humble Beginnings

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The Hester Street Fair is held next to Seward Park, where Essex and Hester streets meet.
The Hester Street Fair is held next to Seward Park, where Essex and Hester streets meet.

By now, just about the whole world (or at least all of New York) knows about the Hester Street Fair. But as organizers prepare for their second weekend, it’s worth telling, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.”  We’ve already heard a lot about the team behind the Fair, including MTV’s SuChin Pak and architect Ron Castellano. But there’s another group that was also instrumental in launching one of the most talked about events the neighborhood has seen in years.

In the 1970’s, the parcel where the Hester Street Fair is now held was padlocked and forgotten by its owner, the Seward Park Co-op, as a security measure during the neighborhood’s “bad ol’ days.”  For the next two decades, no one thought very much about it. Then in 2007, Pietro Filardo (a newly elected board member) began to wonder whether it was time to take a new look at the tree-lined lot, right next to the park.

2007 Hester Street party. Photo by Pietro Filardo.
2007 Hester Street party. Photo by Pietro Filardo.

That same year, he got together with another resident, Cynthia Lamb, and a few other shareholders to organize a “Hester lot party.” They cut a rusty old padlock and re-hung the front gate. They got plastic cones to cover up holes in the pavement and tree roots. There was food and a live band (“The JP Bowersock Quintet,” featuring Lamb and her husband).  At the event, Filardo invited residents to take part in a contest to come up with ideas for the Hester lot. The results were posted on a local web site, SPBuzz.

A good time was had by all, but not much came of the ideas right away. Then last spring Jac Zagoory, a Seward Park sharehoder, pushed Filardo on the concept of a flea market. Together, they began contacting several existing flea market operators, but there was little interest. A few months later, Filardo and the co-op’s new president (Michael Tumminia) reached out to The Lo-Down. In August, we posted a story publicizing the fact that the cooperative was on the lookout for a flea market operator.

Meanwhile, Pak, Castellano (et al.) were searching without much luck for the right space in the neighborhood for their concept, focused on “the best curated local goods, food and most importantly… the vibrant spirit of the community.”  Then Pak heard from her friends at the web site, Tree Hugger, who had seen our story, and thought the Hester Street lot might be just what they were looking for. The rest, as they say, is history.

The other day, I asked Filardo about the Hester Street lot’s curious history. This much is clear. At one time, Hester Street did not dead-end on Essex Street, as it does today.  The street was truncated in the 1950’s, when a large number of tenement buildings were condemned to build the sprawling Seward Park Housing complex. Filardo prepared the map below, depicting the immediate area then and now:

Seward Park, circa 1920.

Last Saturday, I spoke with an original Seward Park resident, Judi Wind. She moved in on the third day after the cooperative opened in 1960. I asked her whether she recalled the Hester lot ever being used for anything. Wind told me, “no” — it was simply a passageway into the co-op buildings. Due to concerns about muggings and drug dealing, the lot was fenced off. Wind noted the Lower East Side is a whole lot safer today than it was in the 70’s, but also said security cameras (installed a few weeks ago) were obviously not an option back then.

This past weekend, Filardo and Tumminia were obviously pleased the Fair has gotten off to such a good start. For several years, businesses have been trying to figure out how to recapture the “bargain district’s” magic, enticing shoppers to come downtown.

On Saturday, the streets around Seward Park were filled with people who seldom venture below Houston, much less below Delancey. If the pattern continues this weekend and beyond, the Hester Street Fair could be a major asset to the neighborhood.

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  1. I love Pietro Filardo’s map!

    There was a time when the previous Board of Directors thought it would be good to put our garbage in that lot. Another proposal was a dog run. The Hester Street Fair is such a wonderful use of our property and, unlike those earlier ideas, it enhances the neighborhood, too.

  2. Lo-Down reader Sandy Stutz just sent us this note:

    “In the article on (4/29) Judy Wind, an original Seward tenant noted that the space had not been in use due to security concerns in the 60’s. I moved into the Co-Op on 5/67 and we played softball and stickball there on a daily basis. The park was known as the Jewish Field. I met my best friend who I stay in regular contact with at a softball game in the park.

    I want to compliment the Lo-Down. As a former LES resident living just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael I read the Lo-Down on a daily basis to stay in touch.

    Sandy Stutz”

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