On a regular weekday, the stretch of Park Avenue between 111th and 116th Streets in East Harlem is all but deserted, with four passers-by at most. Blocks away from the newly opened Costco, two brightly painted buildings sit under the Metro-North railroad tracks. Only one is open, welcoming visitors with a sign spelling La Marqueta in joyful letters. Inside, the two first stalls are rented and open, plus a few more next to them, but that’s all. The rest of the building consists of empty stalls barred by iron gratings, some of which can only be seen from afar, because a huge grid blocks half the building. The only noise is the soft humming of Latino soap operas watched by some vendor waiting for customers to serve, and every so often a discussion with those few customers.
Shopping at La Marqueta used to be a real bustle. “In the ’60s you couldn’t even come through here because it was so busy,” butcher José Cintron fondly remembers. “It was packed from 6 to 6 Monday to Saturday, it was loud, and there was a fish stink like hell!” He pauses. “It was the good days.”
The good days passed in the late ’70s, when La Marqueta started slowly dying. Since then, the city has tried various times to revive it, without success. Today, a new plan is in place: part of the market is to become a kitchen incubator, where food entrepreneurs will rent kitchen space to get their businesses started at a low cost.
It was the city that first created La Marqueta, East Harlem Chamber of Commerce President Henry Calderon explained. “It started with Mayor La Guardia in the ’30s,” he said. “There were vendors all over the place,” and so the idea was to regulate the activity of all these street vendors by putting them in one place. Merchants quickly filled the five buildings, and evolved with the neighborhood. It was the place to find food impossible to spot in New York. “The food in the rest of the city catered to the majority” of its residents, said Calderon. And so as Puerto Ricans settled in East Harlem, La Marqueta “became a place where you could find food that your recognized. So La Marqueta became a symbol of El Barrio.”
Yuca, yautia, bacalao, malanga, morcilla, chorizo, longaniza were among the specialties at La Marqueta. “Everyone came here, from the Bronx or Brooklyn too, especially those who didn’t have the staples of their diet,” said Pedro Pedraza, a longtime resident of East Harlem and a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “And since you were here you might eat here too, since on the West Side you couldn’t find Puerto Rican restaurants, unless you went farther up.”
Marina Ortiz, founder of the advocacy website East Harlem Preservation, said, “That was the shopping district.” Goods would be “pouring down on the sidewalks, blocking the access,” she said. “It was just a trip. You could spend a day there and buy cheap. We didn’t have chain stores or as many bodegas.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of and reasons for La Marqueta’s slow death. According to Pedraza, the East Harlem community started changing in the late ’70s, diversifying. As he and the few merchants still at the market explained, some vendors died, some retired, and no young generation came to replace them.
At the same time, supermarkets and bodegas started carrying the ethnic food that used to only be found at La Marqueta. “Before, people came from all the boroughs and all over the city because they couldn’t find it elsewhere. If you can, then why make the trip?” Calderon said. Ortiz added, “It became a place where people didn’t go, and even avoided.” The downhill slide “culminated in a fire that destroyed most buildings,” she said. Today only two buildings are still standing: the one with the market, and a large empty one. A third lot has become a gated outer plaza, while the two last ones are empty.
With fewer and fewer shops, La Marqueta stopped being that giant open air market, and “people like to shop in places where they can buy everything at the same time,” fishman Bernard Lifschultz said. At 90 years old, Lifschultz, who goes by Benny and is affectionately nicknamed “the old man” by some customers and vendors, has been working at La Marqueta for 63 years. He came at the end of World War II, and hasn’t left since. He still remembered the time when “there was a long waiting list to have a stall here, because it was very lucrative.”
Today business is not as profitable, but Benny and the handful of current vendors are not ready to leave. “It occupies my time,” said Benny, whose savings from the glorious days of La Marqueta help carry through his older years. “I doubt a newcomer would do very well.”
His colleague of 40 years, José Cintron, said: “I’ve got two more years before I retire. I don’t need to get rich, I don’t want to die rich. I make enough to have fun now.” Cintron, Benny and the few other vendors benefit from low rent since the building is owned by the city. Cintron pays $600 a month, utilities and insurance included. He said he had enough to live with around $5000 a month after expenses, 60 to 70 customers a week.
“Forty years ago, I had 1,000 customers a week,” Cintron said. “I don’t think this place is going nowhere.”
Throughout the years, city administrations have tried to revive the space but one plan after another fell through. Calderon said, “The plans to revive it have been mislaid because they were trying to recreate something that was there in the ’50s.” Ortiz added: “People are very nostalgic. They don’t want to let go of the heart of El Barrio, it’s a landmark.”
For the New York City Economic Development Corporation, one of the reasons previous attempts failed was their large scope, spokesperson Janel Patterson explained. So at the beginning of August, the group decided to take another, smaller approach, by announcing the construction of a kitchen incubator in the market’s building. The fully equipped shared kitchen will take over a little more than a third of the 10,000 square foot building. Young food startups or food businesses looking to expand will be able to rent a kitchen space and equipment to cook at a cheaper rate than elsewhere in the city.
Contractors sent out proposals to undertake the construction at the beginning of September. They are now being reviewed, Patterson wrote in an email. Construction is expected to begin by the end of the year, and the incubator should be completed by the end of summer 2010. Ultimately, the group hopes to revive the whole La Marqueta area, but for now the focus was on the market building and the empty building, which could be used for storage. The city has budgeted $1 million, allocated by Speaker Christine Quinn for the outfitting of the incubator, Patterson said.
For the vendors, it’s a simple case of being burnt one time too many. “I went to so many meetings,” Cintron said. “We sit down there like dummies hearing those people say, ‘We’re gonna do this and that’, and then they get the money and they vanish. Promise, promise, promise, yeah, promise in your pocket!”
Patterson wrote that the vendors have been “informally informed,” and that the kitchen’s construction and operation should not affect them. Cintron said he learned about the plans from a reporter in September. “I got to see this to believe it,” he said. As for Lifschultz, he said he may have heard of it, but that “it sounded so ridiculous to me that it slipped my mind.” La Marqueta’s veteran thinks the area will not support the initiative. “People come here to buy food cheaper than elsewhere, they’re struggling to subsist. See those tails I cut off the fish to put in the garbage? Yesterday someone asked me to give it to them to make soup. Times are bad, and they are making fancy projects.”
Calderon said: “To me, it’s a sad ending. Having a commercial kitchen sounds good because it creates these jobs in this economy, but the symbol is lost.” While agreeing that nostalgia was not going to help La Marqueta, he would have preferred it to be turned into a destination for tourism, something with local restaurants and ethnic cuisine, but also local artists creating crafts. “Something that brings tourism, money, and jobs for the people who live there, while keeping the name of La Marqueta,” he said.
Deciding to start small might not necessarily be the best answer, said Kathrine Gregory, who started working with kitchen incubators seven years ago. As a consultant for kitchen incubators with her company “Mi kitchen es su kitchen,” she was in touch with the New York City Economic Development Corporation over the plans for La Marqueta. She said though kitchen incubators were a good solution for food start-ups since they reduced costs drastically (renting a kitchen space means not having to buy a $50,000 bread oven for example), they couldn’t be sustainable by themselves. “No incubator without other streams of revenue is financially viable,” she said as she was touring the kitchen incubator she runs in Long Island City, Queens, because without them “you can’t keep prices low enough.”
The Queens kitchen was built into the Consortium for Worker Education building, and is used for a culinary certification program as well as for the incubator. Those classes, as part as numerous other classes the consortium provides, are the reason the incubator can survive, Gregory said.
“To be sustainable in and of itself, an incubator has to be 75 percent occupied,” she said. If the 4,000-square-foot incubator in La Marqueta was broken into four kitchens, available to rent for three shifts seven days a week, like the one in Queens is, that would amount to 336 shifts. The incubator would need to rent 252 shifts out of those 336 a month in order to be sustainable. “That’s why an incubator as a stand-alone project will not work,” Gregory said, arguing that side projects could help pay for utilities, maintenance and managing fees, especially at the start.
Gregory, who did not answer the city’s requests for a proposal but would consider working with whichever contractor wins the request, said she had tons of ideas for La Marqueta, “to create something that becomes like a Mecca” for East Harlem. She thought side projects should include renting small stalls in the market to incubator users or other food merchants, as a way to create a buzz. “More stalls equals more excitement equals more people coming and more chance of them buying!”
When asked about the possibility of incubator users renting stalls in the market to sell their products, Patterson said that those were still early days, and that “lots of decisions will be made by the manager.”