This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Six inches of snowfall coated Manhattan on January 10, 1940, the day 3,500 New Yorkers gathered on Essex Street for the opening of a brand new public retail space that would change the face of the Lower East Side.
Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia arrived at 9:45 am for the inaugural event. He inspected the outside of the finished product: A one-story crimson red brick building—one of four that spanned from Broome Street at the south end to Stanton Street at the north—stood before him. The Essex Street Market was the fourth indoor municipal retail space built during his administration.
When the outdoor ceremony began, LaGuardia stood on a small platform erected for the occasion, flanked by the Borough President of Manhattan, the commissioner of the Department of Markets, and neighborhood representatives, all appearing “distinctly chilled.” The Park Department’s band played a few celebratory tunes for the shivering residents of the Lower East Side. One by one, the men on the podium made brief speeches. LaGuardia’s voice blared over the loudspeaker system. He warned that “the city was not going to spend thousands of dollars [on new public markets] and allow pushcarts on the streets.”
Of LaGuardia’s many public works projects, the Essex Street Market was a key component of his initiative to rid the city of “pushcart evil.” Underneath the snow upon which the ceremony crowd gathered lay roads that peddlers roamed for decades selling their wares. The mayor was committed to cleansing the streets of this mobile menace. The $525,000 Essex Street buildings, he hoped, would solve the pushcart problem—the streets rampant with poorly regulated, unhygienic, safety hazards on wheels, which many locals viewed as a public embarrassment—in a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of peddlers in the city.
The official ceremony speeches lasted less than 15 minutes, “one of the shortest dedication ceremonies on record,” the New York Times said. After the event, the mayor and his entourage passed through the market for a quick inspection of the buildings, which stretched three blocks from 96 to 144 Essex Street. Then the doors of the market “were thrown open” as hundreds of people “waiting to become indoor consumers” rushed in. And at that moment, “the century-old era of East Side pushcart markets gave its last gasp.”
Now, 75 years later, the Essex Street Market has experienced both waves of prosperity and waves of considerable strain. With every new immigrant vendor arriving to set up shop and longstanding merchants departing due to financial hardship or dwindling foot traffic, the market has come to symbolize the neighborhood’s economic and demographic growth. Moving forward, with the massive Essex Crossing project in the works and The Lowline edging toward reality, it is poised to usher in a new era of modernity, just as LaGuardia originally imagined it would.
In establishing Essex Street Market, the LaGuardia administration changed the look and feel of the Lower East Side. A deeper look at the history of the plots of land where the market buildings stand today illuminates LaGuardia’s discontent with the neighborhood as he encountered it during the era of the Great Depression. The pre-market history of the land is a microcosm of lower Manhattan’s ups and downs during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the course of 200 years, three blocks of land transformed from farm estate to tenement housing to ghastly slums to an enclosed public market, and now the mainstay of Essex Street is on the cusp of change once more.
For the majority of the 1700s, the area of land that the Essex Street Market now occupies was farmland belonging to the wealthy DeLancey family. In the book, Privilege and Prerogative: New York’s Provincial Elite, 1710-1776, author Mary Lou Lustig examined this period of colonial New York history. She noted that New York functioned on a manorial system at that time, where large parcels of land were in the hands of a select few. The unequal distribution of property created a social divide between a small and powerful land-based elite and a permanent agrarian lower class of tenant farmers.
As was the custom of the time, manors were passed down to eldest sons. Following that tradition, James DeLancey Jr. (born in 1732), inherited the family property after his father—also his namesake—died in 1860. Even after the elder DeLancey’s death, the family retained a great deal of influence. As staunch loyalists, both father and son had individually attended Cambridge University and studied law in London before returning to New York and dominating the city’s Governor’s Council. However the DeLanceys’ loyalty to the crown of England would prove to their disadvantage after the Revolutionary War.
The DeLancey family, whose farmland spanned a substantial part of Manhattan, would experience a dramatic fall in the latter half of the 18th century. As author Eric Homberger pointed out in The Historical Atlas of New York City, DeLancey Jr.’s support for the British during the American Revolutionary War put him on the losing end. By the war’s end in 1783, the rules of property ownership had changed drastically. An estimated 100,000 New Yorker loyalists, the vast majority of the city’s landed elite, went into exile and were stripped of their property.
As a result of New York State’s 1779 “Act for the Forfeiture and Sale of the Estates of Persons who have adhered to the Enemies of this State,” the Commissioner of Forfeiture seized DeLancey Jr.’s inherited property and sold several of the parcels off in “lots the size of city blocks,” Homberger writes. A total of 175 people purchased the land, and of that group, 69 self-identified as “gentlemen.” Buyers also included merchants, lawyers, attorneys, and members of the trading classes. A second wave of purchasers composed of carpenters, tobacconists, masons, butchers, teachers, brewers, and a boat-builder claimed the four blocks bounded by Essex, Grand, Attorney and Broome Streets. In post-revolutionary New York, however, it was the former group that most benefited from the re-division of loyalist estates.
In Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, authors Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace estimated that nearly half the DeLancey family land sales went to no more than fifteen buyers. Dominick Lynch, a merchant, was among the few. A document titled Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution, published in 1901, includes in its appendix a list of confiscated loyalist properties sold in New York City from 1784 to 1789.
This document shows that on June 29, 1786, a baker named George Fisher bought some of the DeLancey lots for ₤1766, adding to his 1785 land purchases from the same loyalist family property. One of the lots that Fisher acquired in 1786, between Delancey to Rivington Streets, is where the main building of the Essex Street Market remains in use today.
The following year, a merchant named Dominick Lynch purchased several of the loyalist family’s parcels for ₤1,760 on August 17, 1787. One day prior, a man named John Lawrence, who is listed in some places as an esquire, purchased DeLancey family property for ₤330 and also bought three plots from one George Fisher, perhaps the same baker mentioned earlier, for ₤330. Yet, earlier in the decade, a merchant who shared the same name—Jonathan Lawrence—purchased DeLancey property for ₤1,286 on December 17, 1785. Somewhere amidst these purchases, either the merchant Mr. Lawrence or the baker Mr. Lawrence acquired the block from Broome to Delancey Streets, where the southernmost building of the Essex Street Market is currently located.
Within a few years, the parceled DeLancey land—stretching much of the Lower East Side north of Division Street—was developing into wooden buildings and brick or stone rowhouses, some of which still stand today (on Grand and Rivington Streets). By the turn of the 19th century, the land was beginning to resemble its present form.
By the early 1800s, the Lower East Side was in full development mode. In 1818, a market-house was constructed in the center of Grand Street between Ludlow and Essex Streets, only one block south and half of a block west of the present-day Essex Street Market.
A New York City flyer dated March 29, 1828 has the words “FAT OXEN” printed in bold typeface. The advertisement announced the arrival of a pair of cattle “so extremely fat, they cannot be drove about the city,” but would be put on display for all to see prior to their slaughter and sale at the Essex Market.
The original Essex Market was one of the city’s 13 marketplaces in the first half of the 19th century. In The Market Book, author Thomas F. De Voe provided
a historical account of the public markets in New York, Philadelphia, Boston,
and Brooklyn. De Voe wrote that the name of the Lower East Side’s Essex Market,
of course, came from the street to the east of the market-house, originally
laid out in 1765.
In the early decades of the 1800s, the market grew in size and function. Two floors were added above the market-level and by March of 1853, the building also included a police court, a justice’s court, Eastern Dispensary, and the Tenth-ward Station-House. And in the market itself, new stands were added to accommodate more vegetables, cheeses, fish, coffee, cakes, butter, poultry and other meats for sale, many of the same products that its Essex Street successor would carry a century later.
In the first half of the 19th century, the Essex Market expanded to include more butchers than could occupy its stands and serve the area, which was rapidly transforming. Across the neighborhood, some of the first occupants of the DeLancey farmland parcels had begun to move north—as was the fashion—to spaces where other wealthy New Yorkers dwelled. In the Lower East Side, a wave of European immigrants took their place.
The newcomers, predominantly from Germany and Ireland, started arriving to New York City en masse by the 1840s and 50s. The Germans who immigrated to America arrived in three waves, which Homberger described in The Historical Atlas of New York City.
The first group—approximately 1.3 million Germans—arrived during the antebellum period. The second mass wave followed the Civil War, from 1865-1879, and the third, which started in 1880, was the largest by far with almost 1.8 million migrants.
Most of the new Irish arrivals to Manhattan came as a result of the Great Famine of the 1840s. Prior to the wave of Irish immigrants arriving between 1846 and 1855, the Tenement Museum estimates that over one million Irish men, women, and children left Ireland, with a significant portion landing in New York between 1815 and 1845.
The wave of Europeans arriving to the island of Manhattan led to a massive boom in New York City’s population. In the 1840s alone, the city’s population jumped up 60 percent from 312,710 to 515,547, and then increased another 58 percent the next decade, rising to 813,669.
Most German immigrants to the city settled in the area that James Delancey Jr. had lost after the Revolutionary War. The 400-block area, north of Division Street and east of the Bowery (including Orchard Street), and south of 14th Street along the East River came to be known as Kleindeutschland or “Little Germany.” In 1865, the Essex Street block between Stanton Street to the north and Rivington to the south was a mix of German and Irish immigrants. The new arrivals moved into housing constructed as multiple dwellings or converted from row houses.
In 1843, the Association for Improving the Conditions of the Poor described such housing as “generally defective in size, arrangement, supplies of water, warmth, and ventilation; also the yards, sinks, and sewage are in bad conditions.” Families would move in and out of these tenements without improving them, and the ill conditions of the 1840s would deteriorate immensely in subsequent decades.
The influx of immigrants into New York City since the 1840s, many of whom settled in the Lower East Side, made it “the densest neighborhood in Manhattan,” in the early 20th century. Overcrowding produced serious sanitation issues in the tenements that housed the majority of the area’s residents.
In 1864, records show that there were 15,000 tenements in New York City. In that year, the city conducted its first systematic sanitary survey. The results were concerning even then. In 1879, the Tenement House Law was passed, which sought to limit the proportion of a block that could be built upon, and required the removal of “dark rooms,” typical of congested tenement housing.
Eric Homberger wrote in The Historical Atlas of New York City that there were 42,700 tenement houses, housing 1,585,000 people by the year 1900. In 1910, the block of Essex Street between Broome and Delancey Streets housed 800 to 999 people, and the lot between Rivington and Stanton Streets housed even more, 1,000 to 1,199 people. No data was available for the plot between Delancey and Rivington Streets.
In the introduction to The Lower East Side Guide, author Oscar Israelowitz wrote, “This is where it all began—for hundreds of thousands of immigrants whose first home in America, the ‘Golden Land,’ was the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side.”
The transatlantic migration of Eastern Europeans started as a trickle in the 1870s, turned into a larger movement in the 1880s and continued to swell until the start of World War I in 1914. Most of the Jewish immigrants who left Eastern Europe during this period, especially those coming from Russia, left for economic reasons, but also due to persecution. Their immigration to the United States was a permanent relocation, as the majority did not bring much capital with them. They were not likely to find cheaper housing options than the ones available in the Lower East Side.
By the mid-1800s, tenement buildings jam-packed with multiple families covered the plots of the present-day Essex Street Market. The scandals, crimes, and misadventures of the tenants there often made it onto the pages of city newspapers.
For example, the Morning Courier & New York Enquirer reported in March 1848 on a strange exchange that took place at 126 Essex Street. A man with the “garb and address of a gentleman” showed up unexpectedly at the residence one day. The young female servant who worked for the family at that address met him at the door. The stranger claimed that the young girl’s employer, Mr. A, had instructed him to retrieve his best clothes from the house, in order to get them altered. Hesitant and doubtful of the stranger’s abnormal request, she offered to take the clothes to the stranger’s establishment herself. But the man became indignant, and “was very abusive in his language.” Having failed to get Mr. A’s clothes, the man left, but not before he threatened the servant “with his future vengeance.” The article concluded with a caution to readers, advising them to be careful about giving clothes or furniture to strangers.
Decades later, in December 1891, Republican paper The Press described the drama unfolding over an incestuous relationship that involved a couple who had lived on the same block as the young female servant from the previous story. In December of 1891, Jacob Schmitt, a 31-year-old baker at Fleischman and Company, had finally secured an “absolute” divorce from his wife of five years, 28-year-old Mary Schmitt. She had allegedly had a child by her husband’s father, Heinrich Schmitt, a 65-year-old cigar store owner. Jacob and Mary had married in March 1886. They were together for four years when they had baby girl. Their first apartment together was at 120 Essex Street. It was likely very crowded and not an ideal place for an infant. So they moved to a flat on East 13th Street and it was there that their scandal made the news. At the new address, a young female neighbor was keeping an eye on the Schmitt couple. She noticed that after Jacob Schmitt left for work, his father would commonly stop by the couple’s flat. The neighbor alerted Jacob Schmitt to the situation, but that only made him suspicious. Soon enough he found out the truth, “that his wife was faithless to him,” and he left her in April of that year. After getting a divorce, Mr. Schmitt told his wife that she could keep their child, as he “did not care for it.”
Deaths and near-death experiences in the tenements were often reported in the papers as well. In January 1896, The Press printed a short write-up about Joseph Salad, a toddler who lived at the corner of Essex and Delancey Streets, which is today the main entrance to the market. One night the two-year-old was wandering unattended when he climbed onto the third story fire escape. In a tragic accident, the little boy fell and sustained fatal injuries. The paper did not give any details about the adults charged with his care.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the unsuitable, unhygienic, and unsafe living conditions of the Lower East Side became a larger public concern. Two vital city reformers brought the neighborhood’s issues to light in the 1890s.
Sensationalist journalist/photographer Jacob Riis documented the appalling reality of life in the neighborhood for the world to see in How the Other Half Lives, a photo-book published in 1890, and its sequel, Battle of the Slum, which came out 12 years later.
Lillian Wald first observed the destitution that immigrants on the Lower East Side endured in 1893 when she was 26 years old. She responded by moving into the neighborhood and founding Henry Street Settlement, a center to provide local residents with affordable healthcare.
Riis and Wald’s concerns for the wellbeing of New York City’s impoverished immigrants led the Tenement House Committee of the Charity Organization to conduct an investigation of tenement houses. The results of their study illuminated the shocking sanitary conditions and levels of disease that prevailed in the city’s most overcrowded areas. And in response, the city passed the Tenement House Law of 1901.
The Tenement House Committee of the Charity Organization produced maps to bring attention to the tenements’ terrible conditions. One map of the tenement house district bounded by Division, Rivington, Essex Streets and the East River showed the “Overcrowding of Buildings on Lots and Consequent Lack of Light and Air Space… ” The map indicated total population of the blocks in 1896 as well the number of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and diphtheria cases at each address.
Along Essex Street between Rivington and Delancey Streets in 1896, it showed that there were 2,425 residents, and six cases of tuberculosis. And on the block to the south, from Broome to Delancey Streets, where 1,597 people dwelled, five cases of tuberculosis and four cases of scarlet fever occurred.
Although most Jewish immigrants who arrived at the turn of the century did not bring many assets, they did have experience in peddling, and they brought this tradition to the neighborhood, Israelowitz wrote. In one area known as “the Jewish Quarter,” street peddlers worked late and lined the streets. But as the city modernized and automobile traffic increased, the pushcarts became increasingly less welcome.
The Department of Public Market’s Annual Report in 1937 described pushcarts as “unsanitary… a fire hazard, a health peril, a street traffic problem, a real estate blight, and a source of great additional cost to the sanitation department.” The previous year’s report said that the only way to solve the problem of pushcart evil was to force peddlers off of the streets and into enclosed markets. In these spaces the street vendors would serve their purpose more successfully and “in line with modern ideas of sanitation.”
By the start of the Great Depression, new public works projects were underway. Beginning in 1929, the City’s Department of Buildings ordered the demolition of several brick tenement buildings, situated along Essex Street between Delancey and Rivington Streets. The City’s Superintendent of Buildings, Charles Brady, approved them all for the construction of the subway. A stop was constructed at the corner of Essex and Delancey Streets.
In 1934, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia had appointed William Fellowes Morgan, Jr. to spearhead the Department of Markets and to tackle the city’s pushcart problem.
During his three-term administration, Mayor LaGuardia, with great help from Commissioner Morgan, abolished the open-air markets of the city. By 1937, the city had already eliminated many of the open-air markets and was planning to open more enclosed retail spaces to absorb the rest.
Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill were the two architects commissioned by the Department of Markets to design the Essex Street Retail Market, and a few other similar spaces around the city. Federal funds made available through President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the WPA, which made the market projects possible.
An Associated Press article reprinted in the Corning New York Evening Leader on November 24, 1939, described a few of the changes that the Essex Street Market was expected to bring to the neighborhood. The article said that city officials projected the enclosed market would save $173 a day in the cost of cleaning the Lower East Side’s streets, and the market was expected to house about 530 peddlers, each to pay $4.25 a week for their stalls.
Over the next few decades, these estimates would drastically shift with the fluctuating economic climate.
Soon after the Essex Street Market opened its doors in early 1940, the Lower East Side and its famed retail space began to transform. Many of the Jewish families and vendors who witnessed the arrival of the market moved to Brooklyn. Puerto Ricans began to move in and the products available at the market began to reflect the neighborhood’s newest residents.
By the 1950s, the market suffered as supermarkets attracted potential Essex Street shoppers. Two of the original four buildings closed down. Through the ’80s and ’90s the number of vendors dropped and the market’s cleanliness deteriorated. In the mid-1980s, there were only 59 vendors left in the Essex Street Market. A private developer tried unsuccessfully to restore the market to its former glory, but it wasn’t until 1995—when the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) took over—that things took a turn for the positive. That organization gave the market a $1.5 million facelift.
The market today looks very different than it did in the 1940s, when the majority of vendors sold only produce and groceries. Now, it is a one-stop shop for the international epicure. Among other things, vendors sell chicken mole tamales, spinach pies, tilapia sandwiches, Swedish meatballs, homemade soups, fresh baked bread, and Japanese vegan delicacies (see the market directory here).
The EDC continues to have major ideas for how to develop the Essex Street Market and the Lower East Side neighborhood. In 2013, it announced plans to incorporate the market into its 150,000 square foot “neighborhood-transforming development,” called the Essex Crossing. Some of the current vendors are dissatisfied with the EDC’s management and leery of moving out of what has been the market’s home for the past 75 years.
In an October 2015 community board meeting, the Vendor Association at the Essex Street Market called for the creation of a new, non-profit, locally based organization to manage the historic space. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer expressed her support for this option.
Since announcing plans for the new space, the EDC has reached out to current vendors to make sure Essex Crossing meets their needs and to assure them that moving costs will be covered and rents will not fluctuate.
In the spirit of reform, Mayor LaGuardia’s opening day speech in January 1940, reminded the crowd that their neighborhood—”the great East Side’’—was “as much a part of New York City as Riverside Drive,” and that those who didn’t want the changes that the market would bring, were “fooled.”
After 75 years, the Essex Street Market is approaching yet another stage of its vibrant life, albeit apprehensively. But history is a great teacher, and just as the plots beneath the market buildings have adapted to and accommodated a transforming city in the past two centuries, this neighborhood landmark, which is no stranger to change, will continue to be a part of what makes the Lower East Side great.