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Historic Protection Sought for Essex Street Market

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Community Board 3 and city planning officials have decided to delay an in-depth discussion on the future of the Essex Street Market (it was originally scheduled to take place May 2). Neighborhood activists have been gearing up to defend the four 1940-era buildings for the past four months, ever since it became apparent they might be endangered by the redevelopment of the Seward Park site.

Cynthia Lamb, who’s heading up the new organization, Save the Essex Street Market, has gathered more than 800 signatures in an online petition. And today, members of the group plan to formally ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect the market buildings.


The NYC Economic Development Corp., which manages the Essex Street Market and is overseeing the SPURA project, has said no decisions have been made about the old buildings. Everyone agrees a public market should be part of the Seward Park program, but John Shapiro, the city’s planning consultant, has advised building a larger, modernized facility in a “superior location” elsewhere on the SPURA site.

People are divided on the architectural merit of the four buildings, which were hastily put up shortly after Fiorello La Guardia became mayor in the mid-1930’s — part of his relentless campaign to rid the city of pushcart vendors.  Defenders of the utilitarian, WPA-funded structures say they are representative of a New Deal-era design known as “Depression Modern,” which incorporated elements of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and the Beaux-Arts style.

Others ridicule the buildings’ “drab” red-brick/concrete facades and lack of ornamentation.  Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, told us it’s missing the point to dwell on the architecture. If architectural merit was the only relevant factor in preservation, very few buildings on the Lower East Side would be eligible for protection, he noted. In Bankoff’s view, the Essex Street Market deserves protection because it’s integral to the “historical and cultural identity of the Lower East Side” through many generations.

New York Times, January 10, 1940; opening day at the Essex Street Market.

It’s not just that the buildings represent an era, he said, but the fact that they continue to be used today for essentially the same purpose for which they were created 70 years ago. Bankoff suggested the Essex Market debate also raises an important civic question: what is the role of government when it comes to preserving publicly-owned, historically significant buildings? “Part of urban planning should be burnishing a neighborhood’s heritage,” he said.

Bankoff is being kept apprised of the Seward Park talks by Linda Jones, a Community Board 3 member who also sits on the Historic Districts Council’s Board of Advisers. She is submitting a “Request for Evaluation” to the Landmarks Commission. Practically speaking, it’s unlikely the Commission (which is controlled by the mayor) will choose to intervene. But activists hope the submission will make a strong statement about the market’s historical value.

Down the road, Bankoff said, there’s another possibility: applying to have the market listed on the New York State and national registers of historic places.  “Because they are public buildings, state and federal protection could be a powerful tool,” he argued, since the city would be required to seek permission to alter or destroy them.

Bankoff remembers well the controversy that erupted three years ago when a private developer planned (with the city’s blessing) to dismantle the 1939 “New Market Building” at the South Street Seaport. “The city dealt with that situation poorly,” he said, adding, “I hope they don’t do the same thing here; I’m more hopeful than I was back then.”

The 1939, “New Market Building,” at the South Street Seaport.

Robert LaValva, founder of the New Amsterdam Market, has worked to save the Seaport building, once home to the Fulton Fish Market.  He’s also been a strong advocate of reinstating public markets throughout Lower Manhattan.

In an interview, he said the Economic Development Corp. approached him a year ago about the possibility of organizing some food-related events in one of the two vacant Essex Market buildings.  While the idea didn’t come to fruition, LaValva remains convinced that the Lower East Side market can and should continue to grow in its current location.  Like many residents, he is skeptical that the distinctive flavor of the market could be transferred to a new, gleaming “super market” somewhere else on the SPURA site.

Suzanne Wasserman, a well-known historian and director of the Gotham Center for NYC History, agrees. She notes that the market struggled through many decades and quickly became obsolete, before its resurgence in the 1990’s.  Wasserman wrote about the market in an essay for the 2008 book, “Gastropolis: Food and New York City,” concluding:

One bright note in recent years is the success of Essex Street Market. Long dormant and a blight on the neighborhood, the indoor market is “thriving today as it never did, making available both the world of the bodega and the universe of the gourmand. New York City’s Economic Development Corporation poured $1.5 million into its renovation. In a city increasing segregated into the very rich and the very poor, the Essex Street Market today ironically stands as an example of a successful commercial space that caters to local residents and visitors alike.

EDC officials have been conducting interviews with various neighborhood stakeholders. Save the Essex Street Market founder Cynthia Lamb was scheduled to meet them this week. Also in the past several days, EDC staff have briefed market merchants, some of whom are growing increasingly anxious as the redevelopment talks proceed.

In the past, the EDC has had little specific to say about the Essex Market buildings.  There has been no public discussion, for instance, about potential uses for the parcels if the buildings were to be demolished.  It’s also unclear how difficult it might be to build on the narrow lots, which sit over the F/J/M/Z subway station. Perhaps more information will be made available this spring.

The market discussion is now scheduled to take place when CB3’s SPURA committee meets May 25th.  Details still to come.

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  1. Instead of talking about PRESERVATION, the SPURA programmers are talking about DUMB-olishun. The Essex Stt Mrket should be landmrked, expanded to include the previous location and subsidized. What are the SPUR-ious SPURA-ites saying anyway; that they want to bring a Wal-Mart, Target or other retailer and replace the ESM? They need to re-configure the scale of their thinking, The proportions of their perspective has gotten to be distorted. May be easier to re-name the city, Auld Yorque than to convince the avaricious, corporate realtor-mentality  wannabe ‘City Programmers’ that they are having another of their Lottery fantasies. They’d  said ‘Who Knows’ TOO OFTEN;. . .’cause WE KNOW.  SAVE THE ESSEX STRT MRKET  from the DUMB-olishun wrecking ball. SAVE THE ESSEX STRT MRKET for your kids. SAVE THE ESSEX STRT MRKET  from the corporate wannabes.

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