Remember ‘La Marqueta’?
Some years ago UF reported on the stalled efforts to jump start the East Harlem market. Yesterday the New York Times released an article about its history and the latest in failed attempts to revive this market which once bustled with hundreds of people who wanted to stock up on the foods they once enjoyed in their home countries. I have fond memories of the “old” market…as far back as the 80′s anyway. My family used to go here to get boxes of avocados, yucca, and plantains in bulk. The avocados we would store in the makeshift pantry closet that used to be trash chute (back when they were existed inside apartments). Inside there the avocados would ripen to gustatory perfection and you would have a tasty avocado ready to go with your plate of arroz con pollo and guandules (gandules to everyone else). The possibilities were endless! You could have your avocados in slices and sprinkle some salt on them to have as a side veggie. Or you could mash it up with your moro (rice and beans cooked together) or con-con (the burnt part of the rice at the bottom of the pot). Hungry yet?!
Needless to say avocados are one of the indispensable foods of any Latino kitchen. The other big commodities were the plantains. Even though you could get these at the bodega, you couldn’t get them at “Marqueta” prices. I’m talking about up to 20 plantains to the dollar! These were the same prices the store owners were getting. And the big plantains too! None of those skimpy ones you see at Pathmark today. Call it our very own Costco or BJ’s. You could also count on the freshest meats and perfect herbs to marinate them in!
I enjoyed many years of wholesome foods from La Marqueta. However, as all things fade with time I relied less and less on it. In typical urbanite fashion, as I grew into adulthood and being away from home I relied a lot less on places like La Marqueta and more on Chinese takeout (though I can still make a mean pernil). I hadn’t been to the market in years. So the other day when I got a call from my mother asking me to buy her box of avocados I was relished to return to this glorious place of my youth. My brother and I went with illusions of fighting our way through crowds and bargaining for even lower prices on those avocados. When we got there we found no such thing. In fact, from the outside the place looked deserted like some post-apocalyptic movie (think Will Smith speeding through the empty streets of New York City in I Am Legend). We recognized the entrance from when we were younger and made our way in. We saw about 4 booths that were selling a short list of convenience store items like candies, hair pins, etc. It was the kind of mismatch variety you might expect from a 99 cent store except you were limited to about 8 items. We immediately walked out and figured there must be another entrance…you know…where everyone else is! We walked down the stretch of the complex which is housed under the Metro North tracks. There were no other entrances. There were no other people. Baffled we quickly ran back to the original entrance and asked the few vendors present, “Hey…where do we buy avocados?”. They kindly indicated, “Not here.” We asked where the rest of this Grand Market was. We were told this was it. You could see down the stretch of the corridor empty “booths” that were closed off and empty as if life had not existed there for years.
It was a huge disappointment for the both us to say the least. I actually had not read the UF article I linked to above until after I wrote this article. The worse part was that it just vanished from under our noses without us knowing. The Times articles attests to the fact that many attempts have been made to revitalize the market only to be met with loss of steam or lack of confidence from its investors for various reasons. There are some valid points to explain this stop-and-go-then-stop-againprocess that has eclipse any prospects of a comeback. One is that people are relying more on their “bodegas” nowadays to get these ethnic food products. The other is the fact that many from the community have shunned any ideas that involve switching up things a bit and including outside vendors for fear of being pricing out local vendors. While I doubt any singular factor is responsible for its condition I do know that a vital piece of El Barrio’s heart will gradually suffer infarction. While many would argue that East Harlem can do just fine without it, one must ask “Is that something we want to live with?” We have read about the significant disparity in access to quality foods that exist between minority communities and more affluent ones. We’ve also heard the blogosphere clamoring for a place like Trader Joe’s or Gourmet Garage in Harlem. A place like “La Marqueta” that not only returns huge dividends culturally, but also provides easy access to a central location for competitively-priced, quality food products seems like a no-brainer! I don’t know what the best solution looks like. All I know is that I would kill for a box of those avocados!
Photo Credit: New York Times and East Harlem.com