COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

How Markets Grow: Learning From Manhattan's Lost Food Hub

Patra Jongjitirat
Nov 24, 2012
Dec 14, 2017

The images at the bottom of the post charts the rise and fall of the Washington Market, from its earliest days to its destruction in 1960. 

The sun has barely risen, but the horses and delivery wagons forming a steady stream from Dey to Canal Streets since nightfall have to share the road again. Rats scurry back into the maze of wooden sheds with their vegetable scraps as an early-to-rise New Yorker walks briskly down Washington Street, market bag in hand. He wants to be sure to get the day's choicest fish, to be glimpsed jumping in their tanks. Not far behind him is a housewife, coming to the market for some young turkeys, chickens, and ducks. She places these in the basket her servant carries alongside her, next to the butter which has a separate tin cover. Soon the market is in full swing, with vendors prominently shouting out the fresh spinach and kale from New Jersey, bundles of rhubarb and asparagus from Long Island, and baskets of strawberries from the Carolinas.

Such was the scene in the Tribeca of 19th century in downtown Manhattan. Commerce of a different sort continues in this neighborhood of the 21st century. New Yorkers walking into the tony enclave's restaurants, art galleries, Duane Reades, and Starbucks cafes, who today look up and see One World Trade Center rising overhead, are probably unaware that an enormous food hub called Washington Market used to make its home here.

Washington Market, a piece of forgotten New York history, would have celebrated its 200th anniversary this year. The market got its start in 1812, and operated until the 1960s when it gave way to redevelopment, including the site that was to become the World Trade Center. With many of today's cities experiencing a market renaissance, the rise and fall of the historic Washington Market offers both inspiration and wisdom for sustaining the growth of today's farmers markets.

For most of its early history, New York was a Market City. Washington Market was one of several markets all over Manhattan, delivering fresh food to urban dwellers at a time when much more of the food was being produced locally. “When the market started, it was quite popular because it made it easier for people to get provisions from one central location," says Hal Bromm, founder of the Committee for Washington Market Historic District. "You can imagine it as a kind of [early] urban supermarket.”

Washington Market began at the small neighborhood scale, and its growth over decades follows a trajectory recognizable in public markets to this day. David O'Neil, PPS's public market expert, describes, “The simplest way to start is with a day table. From there, outdoor markets evolve by bringing in more vendors, selling more days, or operating at multiple locations throughout the city. Relating to Washington Market, “It started outdoors, then moved indoors, and then grew enormously over the years to include retail, wholesale, cold storage space, commission houses and brokers. When markets grow, you get to a certain scale of operations that gets other people providing supplies such as ice, lights, and hardware. There is a lot of evolution within the market and adjacent to it.”

Washington Market eventually grew to encompass several city blocks – a city within a city. It was a bustling, messy, vibrant place, active throughout all hours of the day and night. Enhanced sophistication in methods for growing and distribution allowed food to be brought in from all over the world via boat and train, then sent out to areas far beyond New York. An 1872 article published in the New York Times reveals, “Through Washington Market, filthy as it is, cramped, cabined and confined, the epicure grasps the luxuries of an entire continent, and the fruits of the islands in the tropic seas. Of such enterprise and such a trade New York ought to be, and indeed is, proud, though it cannot be concealed that the auspices under which it has grown up have not been encouraging, and the conveniences and facilities extended to it have been remarkably scanty.”

By the 1880s, there were more than 500 vendor stands and over 4,000 farmers' wagons driving into the city daily to sell. With the growing complexity of its operations and evolution into a regional food distribution hub, New York City's Office of Public Markets stepped in to regulate the competitive relations between farmers, wholesalers, and consumers. The office took responsibility for such things as public health and safety, traffic regulations, and weights and measurement standards. Although this specialized city bureau no longer exists, it underlines the vital role markets played in civic life.

In the end, despite its preeminence as a food center, Washington Market was forced to relocate to Hunts Point in the Bronx in 1962, overcome by a changing food system and the underlying real estate value it was sitting upon. Bromm explains, “The city's goal was to get everyone to move to Hunts Point, where they could have a centralized location and transportation links that would make [food distribution] more efficient. By  the 1960s there was the South Street Seaport Market, which was for fishmongers and folks who dealt with seafood; Washington Market, which was produce, dairy, etc.; and then the meat market, which was up at Gansevoort and Little West 12th Street. These three major markets each dealt with different aspects of the food chain.”

As O’Neil similarly emphasizes, “There was a lot of consolidation going on in the food industry, with bigger and bigger users and suppliers and small vendors falling to the wayside or going out of business. Washington Market was antiquated. There were all sorts of problems with aging infrastructure and accessibility, not being close to the highways.”

The perception of obsolete structures underlines Bromm’s point that “In terms of Washington Market, there was another goal, which was they thought the swath of land occupied by the market could be demolished and used as an urban renewal area. Remember, this was in the era of developers like Robert Moses.”

In the late 60s the city demolished huge swaths of the market between Greenwich, Washington, and West Streets, roughly from Laight Street at the north end all the way down to what was to become the World Trade Center site at the south. The area was cleared of many five- to six-story buildings with ground floors that housed market operators and businesses, with upper floors for offices and storage. In the book The Texture of Tribeca, which he co-authored, Bromm describes the photographs of people protesting in the street and carrying 'Save the Washington Market' signs. Says Bromm, “They were very upset that the city was going to move the market to Hunts Point and demolish all those buildings.”

Relegated to the margins of the city, the market quickly diminished in the public eye and never regained its former vitality as a public space. “Markets create value through socialization,” O’Neil explains, “and Hunts Point was missing the layers of people and urban uses.”

Cities today are seeing a markets make a comeback, as communities and civic leaders aim to tap into markets' magnetic ability to attract people and bolster surrounding businesses while improving fresh food access. In 2000, there were about 2,800 farmers markets operating in the United States--a number that has now grown to over 7,000. From New York on one coast to Portland on the other, many American cities are seeing their market networks mature and thrive. The Santa Monica Farmers Market, successfully operating for over 30 years, is one of the pioneers of this new wave. Like Washington Market, it started out small and then expanded its network to encompass the four weekly markets currently operating.

Likewise market halls, once the cornerstone of community planning, are re-surging in cities large and small. In 2014, Boston Public Market anticipates moving into Parcel 7, the site of its new home with 30,000 square feet of ground floor retail space. Just last month, the community of New Bohemia in Cedar Rapids, Iowa passed a milestone with the opening of NewBo City Market. With this new market building, the community reclaims back stronger than ever a flood-ravaged industrial site.

Of course, the evolution of successful outdoor markets is not always to move into indoor market buildings. Vendors are adept at bringing infrastructure with them such as generators and refrigeration. Even with food preparations, there are a variety of possibilities from hot plates to food trucks. “If you do want more infrastructure or a permanent stall,” O’Neil remarks, “you generally go indoors. You would have more improvements like plumbing, electricity, storage, and signage.”

In addition to vendors taking stalls inside the market building, some will choose to open a permanent storefront facing the market or nearby. A market district is in the making when people, not necessarily market vendors themselves, see markets as an opportunity to start a business because of the clustering of food uses and foot traffic.

The historic Washington Market and these present-day exemplars all show how a market is more valuable than the sum of the transactions that take place immediately within its bounds. “The innovation of markets at the small scale tends to establish what people want and what works,” O'Neil explains, “which leads to larger copies in mainstream economy. It has all been quite positive. Local food and environmental movements that started in the market world and are now being picked up by Walmart and McDonalds.”

As supervisor of the Santa Monica Farmers Market program, Laura Avery's experience is a testament to this. “The food movement is growing nation-wide,” says Avery, “and Santa Monica was there before it started. Our markets are thriving because of an incredible public interest in local sustainable food which developed a life of its own.”

The common thread that runs through all markets is that of change. As O'Neil says, “Markets are always in flux. They will be different tomorrow and you can't get comfortable.”

However, if there is one constant throughout our country's market history, it lies in markets’ dearly held place in public life. As a New York Times journalist wrote nearly 150 years ago, “Perhaps the chief attraction [of the Washington Market] lies in the essentially human character – in the bustle and the confusion, the rushing and the tohu bohu of the place. The rage which possesses both buyers and sellers, the concentration of purpose of so many thousands, the clangor of many voices, and the sounding of many footsteps, all impress themselves forcibly upon our imagination and appeal to our sympathies.”

Through communities’ diligence, safeguarding, and adaptability, many of the new farmers markets coming to life today will grow and last for as long, if not longer, than the historic Washington Market.

All images appear courtesy of David K. O'Neil.

Patra Jongjitirat
Patra Jongjitirat
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