Lost In History, Vol. 20

by |
02/14/2007 12:00 AM |

Ah, the good old days. Cobblestone streets and pre-war tenements filled to capacity, housing thousands of the indigent poor. Fourteen-hour sweatshop days and six-day work weeks for every last member of the family. A culture of production, as opposed to consumption. And how about those pushcarts, clogging the arteries and viaducts of the single most densely packed neighborhood in the world — the Lower East Side? Those pushcarts defined New York’s’ inherent bustle and schema — our everything-is-for-sale mentality, our get-it-anywhere-even-on-the-streets attitude, and most certainly our appreciation for the hard work of the immigrant classes. You know, the more we think about the past that we weren’t alive to experience, the more we lift the sepia-scrim of nostalgia from our hangover headaches, the more it seems that those lost and lamented affections of the LES were pretty shitty. Including the pushcarts.

Everyone’s seen the pictures. You all should watch Milos Forman‘s iconic film Ragtime, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, and everyone should go to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. We’re expressly describing the black and white still shots of street scenes with hundreds of pushcarts traversing any given intersection on any particular weekday. Pushcarts — essentially a wooden stand and storage space on wheels — were one of the easiest incomes for the immigrant poor. They were hardly regulated in the 19th century, they were mobile, they were cheap to build and repair, they could be tailored to provide both goods (fruit, silverware, clothes, household supplies) and services (tailor, knife-sharpener, barber, shoe-repair), but most critically of all, they were rent-free. So explains the abundance of pushcarts in the city at the turn of the century.

However, they were reviled, looked on as an aspect of a backwater European village, and they contributed to an overcrowded, filth-ridden, congested city that was attempting to modernize itself. In 1940, a cooperative of merchants set up the Essex Street Market, as part of Mayor LaGuardia’s overall agenda to remove the pushcart presence from the LES. These are two low-lying Art Deco buildings, on Essex just north of Delancey; one is abandoned, but the other is seeing spectacular days, as it sells an interesting complex of items to both immigrants and bobos from the surrounding neighborhood. You’ve got fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, non-food services as well as gourmet dining items, like fine cheeses and French pastries. The Market even has its own art gallery: the Cuchifritos Gallery nestled inside nearby Schapiro’s Wine stand. (Manischewitz, anyone?)

A number of these markets exist all over the city — the Arthur Avenue Retail Market in the Bronx is beloved by the Italian community up there. One of New York’s lesser-known markets is the Moore Street Market, servicing the Mexican and Latino communities in the increasingly gentrified Southeast Williamsburg. La Marqueta, as it is known amongst its clientele, has been at the corner of Humboldt Street for almost seventy years — it opened the same year as the Essex Street Market — and although it is half the size of that market, its 26 customized stalls are cozily crammed together, proffering everything a Latino- (or any-) heart and stomach could want.  No matter: last week the city made clear its intentions: it wants the vendors out by June so the building can be razed or developed into much-needed housing.

From the NY1 website: “The Market has been in Williamsburg for more than 65 years. It was designed to give pushcart owners a clean, safe space indoors at below-market rents. Residents say it has become a cultural mecca, where they can get their hair cut, buy Latin music and religious items, eat pastelillos, and drink café con leche.” The city claims that the market is a loss-leading enterprise, but the vendors inside La Marqueta cry that you can’t put a price tag on the epicenter of a cultural community. The Economic Development Corporation of the city is helping the vendors find a new place to move to, but in our litigitious society, there certainly will be lawsuits pending and protesters chanting LA MARQUETA in the months to come. Get your Spanish pigs-blood sausage now, while you still have a chance.