In the annals of urban improvements, the plan to resuscitate La Marqueta, the once-bustling East Harlem market beneath the Park Avenue train tracks, must hold some kind of record for fractured hopes.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia opened the five block-long buildings between 111th and 116th Streets in 1936 to shelter what had been a cluster of mostly Jewish and Italian pushcarts. As the Puerto Rican influx after World War II transformed the neighborhood into El Barrio, nearly 500 stands jammed into halls, selling then-exotic produce like cassava and calabaza. But the urban decline in the seventies nearly killed the market. A fire destroyed one building and the city neglected the others. The neighborhood’s population began to disperse, and supermarkets started carrying Caribbean products, making a Saturday afternoon expedition to La Marqueta an exercise in nostalgia.
By 1993, the Times reported, "only a handful of shoppers strolled the cavernous corridors." Plans to revive the market have popped up every few years and promptly fizzled. In the eighties, a developer floated an abortive proposal to turn it into an uptown version of South Street Seaport. A decade later, the city awarded a local community group a contract to refurbish the buildings, but then rescinded it when the renovations didn’t materialize. The same thing happened with a different nonprofit group in 2006.
Now, the Harlem Community Development Corporation has responded to that legacy of incremental failure with the brazenly expansive idea of turning La Marqueta into a food mecca stretching not just five blocks, but a full mile, from 111th to 134th Streets. The plan, dreamed up by Irwin Cohen, the entrepreneur behind Chelsea Market, seems quixotic, but the analytically minded Center for an Urban Future released a report pointing out the civic advantages of a market vast enough to rival Pike’s Place in Seattle, San Francisco’s Ferry Building, La Boqueria in Barcelona, or London¹s Borough Market.
A sprawling market could ease East Harlem’s perpetual drought of grocery shops and restore some of the retail that the area’s epidemic of housing projects squelched 50 years ago. It could energize the neighborhood, become a destination, and draw a whole array of foodie constituents: affluent locavores, short-order pupusa cooks, artisanal dairy farmers, heirloom-eggplant breeders, and shoppers hunting for the makings of a perfect mofongo. The key is not to let it become a gastronomic monoculture.
A new Marqueta could be a transformative force, but only if it really offered everything — if, that is, it mixed the festive feel and vats of boiling grease from the Red Hook ball fields with the culture of baby mâche and meadow-raised lamb of the Greenmarket at Union Square.