On a rainy Saturday morning in 1968, looking out over Moore Street in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn from a second-story window, the view would have been striking. That was the year that the Anibal Meats Market opened on the block of Moore between Humboldt Street and bustling Graham Avenue, and shopkeeper Angelo, who remembers the market from his childhood, can recall seeing hundreds of umbrellas forming a massive, undulating canopy in inclement weather. “It was so busy on the weekends,” Angelo recalls, “all you could see were the umbrellas, moving like waves.”
Today, the block in question is quieter, but it remains an important food hub for the surrounding neighborhood, as well as a launching pad for local businesses. Still owned and operated by the City of New York, the Moore Street Market is one of several public market sheds created by the city in the 1930s, with others on Essex Street in Manhattan and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. As part of The Final Mile: Food Systems of New York, Open House New York partnered with Brooklyn-based Turnstile Tours for a tour of the market and its surrounding neighborhood to learn about the history of the city’s oft-forgotten public market system.
The tour group met at Anibal, which is located just across from the Moore Street Market, to sample some Puerto Rican pork. Before its current incarnation, the market was run by a Polish family, back when the neighborhood was home to a large Eastern European immigrant community. The shift in ownership reflected the changing demographics of the neighborhood, which became a Puerto Rican enclave following World War II. The area remains diverse, and Angelo noted that many locals had been coming to his business long before he owned it. “The same people that shopped here when it was a Polish market are still coming,” he said. “Now, we’re serving their grandchildren, too.”
For their part, Turnstile’s Cindy VandenBosch and Andrew Gustafson first became interested in the area about seven years ago, when they learned about the Moore Street Market and its history as a local food hub while researching 19th century German brewing in the area. Intrigued by the clear impact that the market had had on its neighborhood—a large number of the surrounding businesses remain food-focused, long after the public market’s heyday—they undertook an oral history project to record the stories of market vendors, shoppers, shopkeepers, and other local characters.
VandenBosch shared historic photos and maps of the area from the years leading up to the market’s establishment. Before the city began regulating street commerce more directly in the 1920s and 30s through the creation of the Department of Public Markets, New York was known the world over for its pushcarts. These mobile shops were relatively easy (and cheap) for newly arrived immigrants to set up, making pushcart vending an important entry point into the American economy. As a result, pushcarts clogged many city streets, turning whole neighborhoods into informal market districts.
Pushcart vendors were known for being a bit aggressive (the term “schlepping” refers to the practice of vendors literally grabbing passersby by the coat and dragging them over to their carts), and Mayor La Guardia made it his mission to clear them from the streets, passing regulation that forced vendors into permanent, city-built market halls. According to VandenBosch, vendors in these new indoor markets were even required to wear white jackets. “The idea was to professionalize vending,” she explained. “Also, if you’re a vendor behind a fixed stall, you can’t grab someone walking by!”
The Moore Street Market opened in 1941, and more than 800 people turned up for opening day. The market was designed with space for 150 vendors. It has been significantly reconfigured over the years, though, and contains just a few dozen vendors today. Now, city markets are managed by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), which is working with existing vendors to re-think the marketing for this local food hub as its neighborhood begins to see signs of gentrification. The Moore Street Market is located right at the hinge point between Williamsburg and Bushwick; across the street is NYCHA’s Bushwick Houses, a forest of 20-story towers housing almost 3,000 New Yorkers. More than a half dozen other NYCHA projects stand within a half-mile of the market shed. The neighborhood remains largely Puerto Rican, and many of the vendor stalls are Minority-Owned Businesses.
Inside the market, participants sampled baked goods at a number of stalls, including delicious corn fritters at the America Coffee Shop. The stall’s owner, Drego, has a microphone in his stall that hooks up to a sound system throughout the market. On weekends, he hosts a live radio program where he chats with people who are passing through the market, chatting up customers about what they’re buying, and what’s going on in their lives. Sometimes, VandenBosch noted, customers will even take the mic themselves and interview each other.
Moore Street is also the site of the central bakeries for businesses that are well-known in other parts of the city, including Greenmarket staple Body & Soul, and Bed-Stuy’s Re-Connect, which provides local youth with entry level jobs. “We teach young people how to connect with their community,” explained Re-Connect’s Daytwan. “We tell them, the same energy that you put into illegal stuff, you can put into legal stuff, and in ways that keep money coming back into the community. These kids learn how to make everything from muffins to cheesecake.”
The last stop on the tour was Eden’s Organic Juice. George, the owner, is a fireman for the FDNY, and runs the juice stand as a side business with his wife. He noted that they had recently expanded their business into a second, adjacent stall, and that they were working with the city to build a garden on the Moore Street Market’s roof so that they could grow some of the fruits used in their uncommonly delicious organic juice blends on-site. “The more you can do locally,” he noted, explaining his thinking on the importance of the market as a neighborhood food hub, “you avoid that whole trip that food has to take to get to you.”