Photo credit: Mustafah Abdulaziz/WSJ
Every city deserves a High Line park — Harlem perhaps more than others. In its heyday, Harlem enjoyed an open air food market under the active Metro North rail line called, La Marqueta, which was a common meeting area and place to buy, sell, and trade. In the 1970’s the market declined considerably and has never bounced back — and right now, it’s practically empty. Progress is afoot though, and the Harlem’s Economic Development Corporation is gaining support to revitalize the space and transform it into a mile-long covered market and public park promenade – a High Line for Harlem.
During the market’s peak in popularity in the 1950s it was full of bustling activity, with up to 500 mostly Puerto Rican vendors operating stalls in five separate buildings stretching from 111th Street to 116th Street on Park Avenue. People came from all around to experience the ethnic market and buy items they might not be able to find anywhere else. Now there are only three buildings remaining and local residents have to leave East Harlem to do their shopping.
A recent study by the Center for an Urban Future on the prospects of revitalizing La Marqueta show that in recent years fresh food has become hard to find in Harlem — it has become a “food desert”. Additionally, the number of retail shops compared to the surrounding New York City neighborhoods is considerably lower. Harlem has only 42 retail stores per 10,000 people compared to Flushing with 71 or the Upper East Side, which has a whopping 132. This means that residents in Harlem often have to leave their community to shop, especially for food, and revitalizing the market would not only provide the community with options, but would also help encourage local entrepreneurship, buoy the economy and bring in tourists.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, 2007
Harlem EDC is working with Irwin Cohen, the man who developed the thriving Chelsea Market, on the revitalization of the La Marqueta, which will stretch for 22 blocks from from 111th to 133rd Streets. Since the rail line covering the market is still in use, there will be no elevated park like Manhattan’s High Line, but the covered market will be expanded and updated to hold up to 900 independent market stalls open to anyone who would like to rent one. The city is hoping to keep the stall rental as low as possible in order to encourage vendors to move in. The vision for the market will likely be modeled off London’s Borough Market, will include the latest in environmental “green” planning and architecture, and will build updated public facilities, bathrooms, park areas, and plazas all along the mile stretch.
Cohen helped envision the grand scheme for the market — he said it “could become a fantastic graduate school for people to learn to run businesses and to develop sustainable family wealth. You could have six people from different backgrounds making velvet cake, someone from China making Chinese birthday cakes, a guy from Senegal who specializes in Senegalese tea. On one block, you have a Mariachi band and, on another, a place where people could play bocce. Suddenly, you create something that attracts people from all over. It becomes a destination.”