Food History Podcasts

La Guardia’s War on Pushcarts and the Creation of Essex Street Market

EPISODE 345 Once upon a time, the streets of the Lower East Side were lined with pushcarts and salespeople haggling with customers over the price of fruits, fish and pickles. Whatever became of them?

New York’s earliest marketplaces were large and surprisingly well regulated hubs for commerce that kept the city fed. When the city was small, they served the hungry population well.

But by the mid 19th century, mass waves of immigration and the necessary expansion of the city meant a lack of affordable food options for the city’s poorest residents in overcrowded tenement districts.

Then along came the peddler, pushcart vendors who brought bargains of all types — edible and nonedible — to neighborhood streets throughout the city. In particular, on the Lower East Side, the pushcarts created makeshift marketplaces.

Many shoppers loved the set-up! But not a certain mayor — Fiorello La Guardia, who promised to sweep away these old-fashioned pushcarts that packed the streets — and instead house some of those vendors in new municipal market buildings.

For those immigrant peddlers, the Essex Street Market — in sight of the Williamsburg Bridge — would provide a diverse shopping experience representing a swirl of various cultures: Eastern European, Puerto Rican, Italian and more.

But could these markets survive competition from supermarkets? Or the many economic changes of life in New York City?

Listen today on your favorite podcast player:

Top image from a colorized postcard of the Lower East Side. Find a great collection of these old photographs at the Blavatnik Archive.

An early film showing the life of the Lower East Side pushcart, 1903

Norfork and Hester Streets, 1898

Orchard Street in 1926. That unsightly pile running down the street is dirty snow!

New York Daily News
Berenice Abbott, Hester Street in 1938
Essex Street Market, 1940, Wurts Brothers, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Inside the market, early 1940s, courtesy Essex Street Market

The old Essex Street Market Building today.

Photo Greg Young

Inside the new Essex Market at Essex Crossing

Photo Greg Young

Downstairs at the Market Line set of food shops. (Photo taken in 2019)

Photo Greg Young
Related to this week’s show

Gastropolis: Food and the City, editors Annie Hauck-Lawson, ‎Jonathan Deutsch 
Landscape of Modernity: Essays on New York City, 1900-1940, editors David Ward and Oliver Zunz
Next to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York by Daniel Eli Burnstein
The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill
New York’s Many Miles of Pushcarts” New York Times, Nov. 30 1924
LaGuardia Renews War on Pushcarts” New York Times, May 22, 1938

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1 reply on “La Guardia’s War on Pushcarts and the Creation of Essex Street Market”

Having grown up on the lower east side from the late 50’s to the 80’s, I love LES history. Can’t get enough of it!

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