Neighborhoods

Essex Street Market Vendors Take Trader Joe’s Announcement in Stride

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The new Essex Crossing, a 1.9-million-square-foot labyrinth of shiny retail bliss (not a mall, developers insist) under construction between Essex and Delancey Streets, is getting a Trader Joe’s. The chain, known for fresh, cheap produce, is set to open at 145 Clinton Street in 2018 and will be housed in a 30,000-square-foot basement.

This is pretty good news for a neighborhood with limited grocery options. But for the small-business owners at the historic Essex Street Market, which has struggled with advertising, foot traffic, and management in recent years, reaction to the news is a mixed bag.

“It’s a big amenity for the community. There are a lot of grocery chains they could have picked. I think Trader Joe’s is a good pick,” said Anne Saxelby, owner of Saxelby Cheesemongers, a ten-year market tenant and chair of the Essex Street Market Vendor’s Association.

But others seemed more ambivalent. “Why are they doing that?” asked Emilie Frohlich, who has worked at Formaggio cheese shop for several months, and previously worked at other market stands that have since closed. Trader Joe’s sells a lot of cheese.

Frohlich said that many of the market stands offer culturally specific foods, like exotic fruits and roots, that shoppers aren’t likely to find at Trader Joe’s. But “there are some items they might offer for less [money],” she said, namely everyday grocery items that New Yorkers are constantly looking for a deal on. “I don’t think it’s good for us, but this area could probably use something at a different price point,” said Frohlich.

The historic market was opened in 1940, the brainchild of former mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, in an attempt to move street vendors indoors and clear congestion in the street. The market has evolved with the changing demographics of the neighborhood; it began by catering to the area’s Italian and Jewish residents, and eventually shifted to accommodate the many Puerto Ricans who came to call the area home beginning in the 1950s.

Today, the market is managed directly by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and is home to a diverse array of business owners, including Korean and Latino grocers, fish and meat markets, and cheese stands. The last original tenant, a butcher, closed shop in 2011.

Vendors at the market are slated to move from the north side of Delancey to the south side, in a new, 30,000-square foot space, twice as big as the old location. Below the public market, which will continue to be managed by the city, will be an additional, 700-foot long, privately run market called “The Market Line.” The entire development will include a series of massive glass-walled buildings that will house a bowling alley, movie theater, and a Planet Fitness gym, among other businesses. The new development is an attempt to bring the neighborhood a successful central, public market on par with Philadelphia’s Reading Market or the West Side’s Chelsea Market.

Saxelby went to bat for the vendors, with concerns about lackluster oversight from the city EDC, at a contentious community board meeting in 2015. Since then, the city has made good on promises to help the vendors get by until the move, including the painting of a colorful mural to improve visibility and more posters and promotional materials (though the New York Times reported that it took six months to produce them).

Saxelby insists that the market vendors have so far been taken care of, as they’ll be set up with new, street level retail space (and the promise of graduated rent increases) in one of the city’s most prime locations, what she called a “sweetheart” deal. And ultimately, the arrival of a big, shiny corporate development might make the market, a “mom and pop” community experience leftover from an old New York that is rapidly disappearing, all the more attractive.

The move will allow the market to expand, and will include a test kitchen and large mezzanine. “That’s something Trader Joe’s could never do. It’s not in their model,” said Saxelby.

She went on: “You can’t find many [of these] places in New York anymore and when you do, you have to patronize them. Hopefully people will pick mom-and-pop. It’s going to continue to be a challenge but Essex Street Market has an advantage because of its history.”

Rona Economou, owner of a small Greek food stand called Boubouki, echoed Saxelby’s calm, and spoke hopefully about coffee stores that have thrived in the wake of the arrival of a neighborhood Starbucks.

“There are thousands of people waiting in line [at Trader Joe’s]. Maybe they’ll want to come upstairs and buy something from me,” said Economou. “You never know how these things work out.”

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