When you come upon the Hunts Point Produce Market, the sudden shift in scale is almost startling. Hunts Point feels, at first, like a fairly typical Bronx neighborhood. Driving down Hunts Point Avenue, a diagonal thoroughfare that cuts across the gridded peninsula from the northeast to the southwest, you pass a mix of large and small, brick-clad apartment blocks, with bodegas and restaurants fronting wide sidewalks; this gives way to several blocks of low-slung industrial buildings: auto body shops, warehouses, workshops.
And then, there it is: a colossal building, five hundred feet longer than the Empire State Building is tall, the blue windows and beige brick of the second story just peeking over the top of an eight-foot concrete perimeter wall securing the site through which 65% of the fruits and vegetables that New Yorkers eat moves every day. Architecturally, the market is so unassuming that you could almost miss it. And yet, this may be one of the single most important buildings in all of New York City.
15,000 trucks go in and out of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center every day—many of them bound for the Produce Market, which is one of three public wholesale markets in the hub (along with the city’s markets for fish and meat). When they arrive, those trucks enter the Produce Market through a secure gate and proceed to one of hundreds of bays along four Row buildings (A, B, C, or D), each of which stretches a third of a mile in length.
Occupying the 262 ½ units in these seemingly endless rows are 39 produce wholesaling businesses that rent their spaces from the co-operative that has run the market since it was built in the 1950s. Many of these businesses are family-owned, having been passed down through generations; some have been in operation since the days of the old Washington Market in Lower Manhattan, which served as the city’s produce hub from the mid-19th century up until it was demolished through urban renewal in the 1960s.
Today, the Produce Market’s businesses are the source of more than 3,000 direct jobs; if you include indirect jobs, the market provides employment for more than 10,000 people. 70% of the warehousemen live in the Bronx, making the market not only a critical source of food for the city, but of stable employment for the residents of one of its poorest boroughs.
“Each company is its own business,” explained market director Myra Gordon. “We [the market co-operative] have nothing to do with the running of the businesses…The people who get jobs here—they stay. These are good jobs. They don’t open up very often.”
Gordon was our guide on a recent tour of the Hunts Point Produce Market organized by Open House New York as part of The Final Mile’s exploration of the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, the nerve center of the city’s food system. For her own part, Gordon—as colorful and knowledgeable a New York character as one could ever hope to join for a tour—wouldn’t say exactly how long she’d been with the market, but indicated that it had been many decades since she took the helm. “I interviewed for it because they’d never hired a woman before,” she told the group, with a wry smile. “I didn’t think I’d get it.”
Gordon began by leading the group through the market, toward the tail end of the busiest part of the day. Deliveries to the market mostly take place between 4:00 and 7:00 in the morning, with buyers arriving throughout the morning. Things wrap up each day by 3:00pm, and the market is closed on the weekends. The tour took place at 9:00am on a Thursday, and the market was still bustling. Things had calmed down enough that the group was able to walk with relative ease up Row A, then back down Row B—a trip that took nearly 20 minutes despite a brisk pace.
During the walk, warehousemen swarmed around the group rolling handcarts stacked with boxes of tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions, and lettuce. The sheer amount of produce was mind-boggling. Some businesses were fronted by colorful displays of their stock for the day; others were practically hidden behind walls of cardboard boxes, ready to be loaded onto a waiting truck. Everything within view, Gordon told the group, came in the night before.
There’s a reason for this—and its not just that New Yorkers are hungry people. The market is out of space, and every minute here counts, as businesses are looking to move as much product through their space as possible. The four Row buildings are all at capacity, and hundreds of truck trailers sit in long lines, serving as back-up refrigerated storage, dramatically increasing energy costs at a site that—alarmingly—has no backup power source.
“Business is flat,” Gordon told the group. “Even though the city’s population is growing, business is flat…Nobody had a futuristic mindset when this market was being planned and developed, to think that [truck] trailers would go from forty feet to fifty feet, or more. So now, our spaces are not wide enough; the platforms are too narrow. We don’t want to use the trailers for storage, [but we don’t have a choice].”
For its part, the city is aware of the space constraints at its largest wholesale market, and is working to improve things at the site. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to invest $150 million into the modernization of the Hunts Point markets. The mayor stated, during his announcement, that the growing interest in local food was a key factor in the decision. While this is a strong start, Gordon told the group that the co-op had been talking about re-building at the current site for more than a decade, and that the estimated cost for the overhaul they would ideally like to see would be in the neighborhood of $400 million.
The complexity of rebuilding at such a busy, critical site would be enormous, but the produce market is a critical site within the city’s food system—and within the global system of food distribution in which New York is a major hub. For any New Yorker concerned about the future of the urban food system, a better understanding of the issues facing the market is critical. It may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of New York; but we would live in a profoundly different city if the produce market weren’t standing right where it is today.
Open House New York thanks the Hunts Point Produce Market for welcoming participants into their facility for this tour. OHNY also thanks NYCEDC for helping to arrange the tour, for joining the group to provide context on the bus ride up to the market, and for providing stock imagery of the produce market for this blog post as photography was not permitted during the tour.