Bulldozing the Essex Street Market Would Not Be Cool

Essex Street Market. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.
Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Consider me shallow if you like, but I do actually think about coolness. I know it’s generally more of a teenage concern than a middle age one, but I can’t help myself. Coolness is like beauty: it has a short shelf life. This transience is part of its appeal. Today’s shock of the “new” quickly becomes tomorrow’s rehash. Either catch the moment or miss out entirely. That’s how it works.

When it comes to neighborhoods, coolness is a function of transition. The early stages of gentrification are cool, the end result is not.  If you doubt this, spend a Saturday night in the East Village or a Sunday brunch in Park Slope. Our Lower East Side food scene has been in what I consider a perfect balance for the last five years or so. There’s just enough upscale stuff to make the old schoolers shake their heads in dismay, yet no dearth of cheap, lowbrow deliciousness. Such a balance is a delicate, fleeting thing, and I’m a big advocate of enjoying it while it lasts. Because change is inevitable.

I make no secret of the fact that I think the Essex Street Market is the coolest place to shop for food (and grab a quick bite) in the neighborhood. Why? Balance. In a neighborhood as diverse as ours, it’s easy to feel the cultural and socioeconomic differences between you and your neighbors. Yet we all walk the same sidewalks. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Essex Street Market. Upscale and down to earth businesses are side by side in an historic space originally designed to get pushcart vendors off the streets. They are all small independent businesses – the kind I prefer to patronize. Every one of them is somebody’s dream, and there’s a good chance that person is behind the counter.

You can listen to the Shopsins cursing each other out while buying $30/lb cheese, less than twenty steps from bags of bell peppers selling for a dollar each. Greek pastries and Japanese health food are just a few feet from yuca and bacalao. Have a taco. Or maybe chocolate covered bacon is more your style? Buy some fish. Or maybe you’re in the mood for goat tonight? A sandwich or a cupcake? Coffee or kombucha? Don’t forget your veggies and fresh herbs – they’re all here.

Over the last seven years, the EDC (Economic Development Corp.) has put great effort into revamping this market. The place is not just a home for businesses that have served our neighborhood for decades, it’s also become an incubator for daring small businesses that really couldn’t exist anywhere else in the neighborhood. That, dear reader, is cool.

Unfortunately, we have to face the fleeting nature of coolness when it comes to the Essex Street Market. The EDC has chosen to ignore Community Board 3’s recommendation that the market be preserved in its current location as part of the SPURA development. There’s still some lip service given to the remote possibility of preservation, but at this point it looks like a fait accompli. They’re gonna bulldoze it. The current vendors will, by all indications, be left hanging. We’ll get a “new” Essex Street Market and maybe a Wal-mart out of the deal. If that sounds profoundly uncool to you, that’s because it is.

Editor’s note: This evening Community Board 3’s land use committee will vote on the Seward Park Development application, which includes plans for the Essex Street Market.  The meeting will be held at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street, at 6:30 p.m. If you would like to read about the EDC’s position on the market,  have a look at our previous coverage.  JP’s wife, and the photographer for his TLD columns, Cynthia Lamb, is the founder of “Save the Essex Street Market,” a community advocacy organization.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

As champagne prices have risen over the last decade names like prosecco and cava have entered our vocabularies. If you’re priced out of France why not turn to Italy or Spain? But let’s not forget Portugal. They’ve made great strides in their wine making of late. Vidigal 2007 sparkling wine is an example ($15 at Seward Park Liquors). It’s made from the arinto grape, just like vinho verde. While it shares the acidity and minerality of many vinhos verdes, Vidigal has no residual sugar. If your take on whites is “the drier the better” this one is for you. It’s a novel sparkler that’s affordable enough to have when you’re celebrating nothing in particular.