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Floundering Williamsburg Market Needs a Push From the City, Vendors Say

By Gwynne Hogan | August 19, 2016 1:05pm | Updated on August 22, 2016 7:49am
 Empty stalls are killing business at Moore Street Market, vendors say. 
Moorse Street Market
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EAST WILLIAMSBURG — Perpetually vacant stalls, lack of advertising and city neglect at the decades-old Moore Street Market are killing business, vendors say.

The Economic Development Corporation took over management of the 70-year-old Moore Street Market in December 2014 and has since allotted $1.5 million for improvements, but nearly two years later about a third of the 27 stalls are empty according to a recent merchant application, and on most days just a handful of customers mill about browsing the produce and other goods.

"The market needs a push," Rafael Pichardo, 58, a tailor who's been working there for the last 12 years, said in Spanish. "The market needs more businesses so that it justifies what it costs to run."

Long-time vendors remember the days when there was live music, parties and events that pulled in throngs from the surrounding area.

"This was filled with people, people people," said Esperanza Basque, the owner of a botanica inside the market. Now, there's not even a sign out front that lists the different businesses inside, she said in Spanish.

"Nobody knows these businesses are in here," she said. "Who knows we're here?"

Community Board 1 called the vacancies a "prescription for failure" in a letter and email they sent to the EDC.

"We cannot stress enough that NYCEDC should be placing its emphasis on small business development by aggressively promoting these marketing spaces at the Moore Street Market," the Aug. 8 letter reads.

Several stores and a bakery weren't open on recent visits to the market. And of the 18 merchants listed on the NYCEDC's website, a handful have since closed up shop for good like Eden's Organic Juices and The Pottery Cafe.

The market's Facebook page has just six posts in the last two years and a event created to advertise an Aug. 6 clothing swap had no invitees. 

A public plaza out front that was finished a year ago was billed as a place for outdoor vendors, food and music, but still hasn't even had an inauguration event, vendors said.

"[They're waiting] for us to get desperate and leave, but I'm not going," Virgilio Rodriguez, 68, who owns Ramonita's Restaurant inside the market, said in Spanish. "I've been here for 30 years, kids that came here in strollers now have kids and grandkids."

Rodriguez and other merchants said they believe the neglect is intentional after a 2007 push during the Bloomberg Administration to close the market and turn it into an affordable housing development. The group banned together with politicians and quashed the effort.

Then two years ago, when the city took over the marketplace again from the a non-profit that was managing it, they were asked to sign agreements that said they would leave with just three days notice, further compounding their fears that the city wanted to evict them and shut down the market.

Vendors finally managed to secure three year leases, though they now expire in 2017, they said.

Anthony Hogrebe, a spokesman for the city's Economic Development Corporation called those lingering fears "ridiculous," pointing out that the NYEDC took over the market in the first place because it was struggling.

"Our only goal for the market is to make it as vibrant and successful as it can possibly be," he said. “These things don’t turn around overnight. We’re starting to see some real progress and we’re excited about what’s coming."

The city hosted two open houses in July for prospective merchants, though Hogrebe had no further information about new vendors coming to fill the vacancies.

Moore Street gets $1.3 million in funding, compared to $3 million for La Marqueta in East Harlem, one of the other four public market places.

La Marqueta, which was also struggling, has since seen a resurgence with a "vendy plaza" featuring street food vendors in an outdoor area, salsa dancing and live music.

The goal is to make Moore Street Market "something as vibrant as the market in Harlem, where there’s programming and events” and "salsa all weekend long," said City Councilman Antonio Reynoso's chief of staff Jennifer Gutierrez, who's been overseeing work with the NYCEDC since it took over.

For decades the market provided a place for Puerto Rican and Dominican families from the surrounding neighborhood to get fresh produce and prepared specialties like surullo, a cornmeal and cheese fritter, and alcapurria, a green banana dough pocket stuffed with spiced ground beef.

The market still has a dedicated if dwindling clientele, vendors said.

"I'm just here to eat what I love to eat. These people are the best," said Juan Cancel, 44, one of the few customers in the market on Tuesday morning, perched at a restaurant counter, in between bites of pork. "If I had my way I'd eat $40 a day here."