Armchair Travels: Essex Market, NYC

Welcome to Armchair Travels, an invitation to travel around the world through the reportage illustration of Studio 1482We have gathered art from our travels to share with you in the hopes that, while you can’t get out and see these places (yet), our experiences may bring some happiness and light to your day. Please check back often as we will be posting new adventures weekly. Enjoy The Essex Market in NYC, circa spring 2019…

 

If you never went to the original Essex Street market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you might not have noticed it was there. Opened in an unassuming little building on the corner of Delancey and Essex Street in 1940, the Essex Market was the outgrowth of the original pushcart street market of the Lower East Side.

A pushcart, if you don’t know, is a moveable vehicle used to push and sell goods in the street – basically a platform on wheels, piled high with all kinds of stuff to sell, that can be pushed by a vendor. For the many immigrants who settled in the lower east side during the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries from Southern and Eastern Europe, the pushcart became a way of life. Need some fresh fruit or vegetables? Need your knives sharpened? Need fabric? How about a nice pickle? The pushcart sellers had it all. Eventually the downtown streets became so congested with carts that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared ‘war’ on them in the 1930s.

And so, the Essex Market was born – essentially, it was a large indoor space set up for the vendors to bring their pushcarts inside. Nothing fancy about it, just sheer utilitarian design. Throughout the 20th and early 21st century, the market kept that casual pushcart feel, growing with the neighborhood, serving each new generation of immigrants who came to call the Lower East Side home. After the Immigration Act of 1965 lifted quotas, that included a large number of those who came from Asia, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, as well as Europe. The Essex Market was a place for the people of the neighborhood: A place not only to shop for fresh produce, meat and fish, but also a place to meet with others and form community. Besides the grocery and food stands, there were coffee shops, bakeries, a few small restaurants – even a botanica and a tiny barber shop.

Recently, in the name of progress, the old market has been closed, and many of the vendors have moved across Delancey to the brand new “Essex Crossings” market. That one has more space and more chi-chi restaurants, but it’s lost that neighborhood soul. In the early spring of 2019, I had a chance to make a few drawings of the old place just before it shut down, preserving the memory of one of the last old school places of the city.

I love the body language of the older couple in the drawing above. They moved through the stands like one unit. You would see a lot of old-timers shopping for essentials at the Essex.

Another thing I loved about the old Essex Market was how tightly PACKED everything and everybody was. The groceries were stacked from floor to ceiling, and you’d see a hand pop out from the stack to weigh your produce, take your money, or give you change.

The people who worked there seemed to know just how to fit into every nook and cranny, and the patrons had figured out a way to weave in and out of the stacks of goods, and each other, without major collision.

When making the drawing above, I found it hard to see where the produce stopped and the vendor began. Many of the shopkeepers at the Essex had been there for 30 or 40 years and had become part of the fabric of the neighborhood. You would hear so many languages flying around as people greeted each other while they shopped.

 

I love the body language of the fish seller in the center of the drawing above, and the customer at left. He is leaning forward so strongly – saying “LOOK HOW FRESH THE FISH IS!” And she has her chin tilted up and her eyes slightly narrowed, saying “OH YEAH, LET ME SEE THAT FOR MYSELF!” No one is going to push either one of them around! Classic old-school New Yorkers, I love them. So direct, to the point, and no-nonsense. And just in case you think that means that they are rude or uncaring, New Yorkers are the first ones to ask if you need help, if you find yourself lost or in trouble on the street. By the way, notice the woman at right, how she is surveying the interaction between the other two – keeping an eye on the whole proceedings. That’s the New York City way – never let your guard down for a minute! Ha ha. I love it.

This Nordic Fish and Wildlife shop was really just fun to draw: Crammed with taxidermy deer and bear heads, little tchatchkes (Yiddish for knick-knacks), as well as good smoked salmon and other Scandinavian delicacies.

The shop has moved to the new Essex Crossing on Delancey, and they took some of their cramped decor style with them, so definitely check it out if you go.

At one point in the day I found a table and chairs along the side of the market to sit and draw from, and this lady above, Magnolia, sat across from me. An immigrant from Colombia, she was a sweet lady with such a sweet smile, who was resting while her daughter did the shopping for the family. I had to draw her – she didn’t mind. We spoke a bit in Spanish about how good the coffee from the nearby kiosk smelled. It really did.


I’m not normally into drawing still life pieces on location, but really, I had to do at least one drawing of the stacks and stacks of stuff that was squeezed into the alleyways of the market. With so much stuff piled together, it’s hard to really call it a ‘still’ life. It’s more like a crowd scene.

These dudes at the fish market didn’t mind me drawing them, but they were keeping an eye on me, just in case!

This is the last drawing I made in the old Essex Market. It really sums things up – an old school bucket and mop (and man using them to clean the floor) a woman buying a coffee from a vendor crammed into a shop the size of a telephone booth, and a guy hanging out, not really doing anything but people watching. I’ll miss people watching at the original Essex Market too. But really, I miss people watching anywhere, in these anti-gathering days of the coronavirus. Stay safe everyone, and let’s all give a big THANK YOU to the essential workers out there, in whatever market they may be employed at.

To see more Armchair Travels from the reportage artists of Studio 1482, please click HERE.

Comments (2)

  1. Suma

    Love this!! What a beautiful tribute to this place and its people. Really miss NYC.

  2. Veronica

    Thank you! Hopefully there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when you can come visit.

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