One of my favorite things about living in New York City is the various and varied markets that exist here. I’d fallen in love with shopping for local food from small-scale vendors when I lived overseas and have been delighted that I could continue to buy that way back here. I’ve also always been a big fan of knickknacks and antiques fairs just bursting with treasures to find. Add to that all the creative and delicious things to discover at the artisan food markets. Last year, Karen Seiger put together a book called Markets of New York City about all the wonderful items that could be found at these venues in each of the five boroughs.
On Thursday, Karen headlined a panel discussion at the New York Public Library titled “Markets 2.0: The Resurgence of Traditional Markets in New York City.” She had Robert LaValva, Director of the New Amsterdam Market, and Ron Castellano, one of the organizers of the Hester Street Fair, with her to talk about their markets and what they’ve seen going on in the New York City scene. Members of the audience seemed to lean strongly in the direction of market goers with a few vendors sprinkled amongst them, although there were also some folks unfamiliar with these two venues too, from the questions being asked.
With both markets, their development sprung out of a strong sense of doing something beneficial for the community. For Robert, working with Slow Food, learning more about the area farmers and what people were making using locally-sourced ingredients provided the backdrop for putting together the New Amsterdam Market, which focuses on artisan food products as well as raw ingredients. The current location, in the parking lot of the former site of the Fulton Fish Market, is in keeping with the heritage of the neighborhood which has hosted some type of market activity in that area since 1642.
The Hester Street Fair is located in what was an empty lot in a neighborhood on the Lower East Side. The Seward Park Cooperative had reached out to them, as Ron is a developer, for ideas about what to do with it. Suchin Pak, one of his partners, came up with the idea of having a flea market on the site. Knowing that there were quite a few entrepreneurs working in the area, they reached out to them to come sell in the market. Their vendor mix is about 1/3 food artisans, 1/3 vintage items, and 1/3 handmade goods, which they generally try to stick with each week. The reward is that they have seen the Hester Street Fair bring life back to the area and the parks around it.
Karen asked Robert and Ron to describe how the markets are similar or different over time. When shopping in them, she said, it is possible to “feel the thread” linking them back to another era when people mostly bought from their local shops and within their immediate neighborhoods. Robert talked about how the culture of buying food from markets disappeared about 50 to 60 years ago, some of this driven by the creation of the supermarket, as Karen pointed out. He also spoke about how their market has gained traction over time through the use of technology, with food bloggers and local writers helping to spread the word about their events and to help them to build an audience to sustain the market.
For Ron as well, technology helps to build an audience for the market, as do special, themed events throughout the market season. Partnering with New York Magazine’s Grub Street for a food-only fair last year , for example, brought 14,000 people to Hester Street and the Lower East side (including me and my friends). He and his partners brainstorm about the events that the can have to bring folks downtown to area that they would not normally come to to shop. He likes to think of it as “throwing a large party every weekend.”
Ron talked about that special energy and interaction that happens when a customer purchases an item from the person who made it, which is one of the things that I enjoy the most about shopping in these venues. Karen echoed this sentiment adding that she sees design trends and food trends in these markets, ideas that might not yet have hit the mainstream but are being tested out by their creators. She’s seen these markets “really blow out communications” to build their communities.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges to hosting these events week-on-week. They do hear feedback about how some customers feel the prices in these markets are too high for the goods being sold, but in defense of that they respond the pricing probably is more reflective of the actual cost of goods and labor than other products that are sold more cheaply. Customers also gain an understanding of the importance of supporting the local economy and helping the people like the famers and artisan food vendors who are working with these ingredients to sustain the area food system.
Space can be an issue for the markets as well. Hester Street Fair really needs more room, Ron said. He also wrestles with how to make the rents of the vendors for their stalls more competitive with the other places that they can sell in the city. For New Amsterdam Market some of their space issues are wrapped up in the larger development challenges facing the South Street Seaport area. He urged audience members not only to think about shopping in the market but also to consider getting involved in the discussions about what to do with this part of town.
Karen commented that she’s seen and felt the passion and aspiration for these markets, which foster other businesses and give back to the community. Someone in the audience pointed out, this has created a “destination market culture of [the] city.” As a person who plans her weekend schedule around which markets to visit and how many I can fit into a day, depending upon what is going on at them and which errands I need to get done, I can add that this market community has enriched and enhanced my experience living in New York where a large city can feel like a much smaller and homier environment due in no small part to the vendors who create and sell amazing food products and with whom I’ve developed relationships by becoming a regular customer. Personally, I hope that these venues continue to thrive and grow into a wider network throughout the boroughs to continue this spirit of enterprise.