By Laurie Lewis
The main reason I went to the Lower East Side in the past twenty years or so was to go to the Tenement Museum (see our April 1, 2018, blog A Visit to a Tenement). Of course, being a dedicated walker, I usually stroll around a neighborhood I’m visiting, and I have noticed how much this area has changed over the years. It used to be rather sketchy, but recently it’s felt safer and more vibrant. Now, with the opening of Essex Market, the Lower East Side has become a destination for New Yorkers and possibly for tourists too.
Essex Market is an upscale replacement for the Essex Street Market across Delancey Street. That indoor market, which opened in 1940, was a replacement for the open-air pushcart market that clogged the already congested streets of the Lower East Side in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the old structures in this area have come down, and in their place a multi-building, mixed-use development called Essex Crossing is rising. I won't comment on gentrification. I'll simply say that Essex Crossing will fill the neighborhood again with residences and businesses, starting with the food shops of Essex Market.
I visited Essex Market twice in recent weeks. The first time—my initial visit since the market opened last May—was on a weekend. The building was mobbed with browsers, shoppers, and eaters. I left quickly, planning to return on a weekday. Sure enough, when I went back on a Thursday afternoon, Essex Market was a different scene. I arrived around 1:30, anticipating that it might still be a bit crowded at the end of New York lunchtime. But the Lower East Side is, for now, a weekend and evening destination; it has not yet become a major business district.
The specialty shops on the entry level of Essex Market feature all sorts of food, some ready-to-eat, some requiring cooking. Several groceries the size of bodegas also offer a variety of foods for neighborhood residents to cook or eat at home. On the lower level is a food court of sorts—it has numerous purveyors but no central seating area; customers can sit in several alcoves or take their food to the mezzanine above the shops or carry it out. Both the shops and eateries feature foods of many ethnicities (lots of Asian cuisines), dietary preferences (quite a few vegan choices), and prices (generally moderate, although I enjoyed shopping at a bargain-priced bodega). One thing disappointed me. In this formerly Jewish neighborhood, I saw many pork products but no pastrami or blintzes.