What did you do this weekend? As the months of the pandemic move along, we have options! It is becoming a little easier to venture outside of our apartments and our neighborhoods, and I am excited to see local favorites around the city beginning to reopen and revive. From my favorite Chinatown restaurants that now have outdoor seating thanks to #AssemblyforChinatown and Think!Chinatown to one of the reasons that I love going to work at the Museum on Sundays – the Hester Street Fair. Local neighborhood favorites are once again welcoming guests and I cannot wait to visit.
Have you ever been to the Hester Street Fair? Which iteration? It has been around since 1865! Of course it has changed a lot since then, but this flea market has a very interesting history. This Lower East Side staple began as a venue for pushcarts and peddlers to sell their wares. Pushcarts were big business in the 19th and early 20th centuries – you could buy almost anything from a pushcart. Want pickles? Pushcart. A watermelon? Pushcart. A marriage?! Yup – that’s right, I said a marriage! Every savvy business person knew that the best place to make a deal and get a deal was at the pushcart market. So even the marriage brokers of the Lower East Side were smart enough to have a place at the markets. And the one who set up shop on Hester Street also transcribed letters, translated documents, and taught Hebrew and English! I don’t doubt that you can still find love at the Hester Street Fair today, but you’ll have to do it on your own.
Marriage brokers were something that the immigrants of the Lower East Side carried with them from the old world and, in a way, so were pushcart markets. While department stores and boutique shops were becoming popular in the upper class neighborhoods of Western Europe and America in the 19th Century, pushcarts were a way of life in Eastern Europe and thus for many immigrants on the Lower East Side. The streets of the neighborhood, specifically Hester Street, boomed with activity from people and pushcarts as everyone was eager to buy and sell. To the people in the neighborhood, it was average; to an outsider, it was a nuisannce.
Two major and vocal opponents of the pushcart market were Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and photojournalist Jacob Riis. In 1890, Riis took photos of the crowded and dirty Lower East Side and published them in his now famous book How the Other Half Lives. It showed Americans how new immigrants were living and further increased their desire for this population’s assimilation. In 1938 in the New York Times, Mayor LaGuardia said that the “open pushcart market is not only antiquated and unnecessary, but also in many instances, unsanitary. In almost every instance these peddlers are a danger to themselves and to others by creating traffic congestion” and using federal funds, he opened indoor markets such as the Essex Street Market that required peddlers to apply for stalls. (For more information about this history, read our own Rachel Serkin’s great post about the topic.) By 1940, the original Hester Street Fair was closed.
The Hester Street market reopened in the 1970s and stayed open until the late 1990s, when another movement against street vendors forced its closure once again. New Yorkers are resilient though, especially when it comes to making use of valuable outdoor space! And in 2009, the Hester Street Fair was once again resurrected. And just like a lot of New York, the fair today reflects the changes in the neighborhood and its inhabitants. Its parcel of land – located on a basketball court adjacent to Seward Park in between Grand and Essex Streets (and behind The Pickle Guys and Kossar’s) – now boasts a green market, food vendors like Cheeky’s Sandwiches, and a variety of artist’s and vintage clothing booths. There are no pushcarts I like to wonder what the 19th Eastern European Immigrants who used to buy their fruit there would think about the virtual DJ sets and vintage handbags from the 70s.
When the pandemic hit in March, many businesses scrambled to adapt. Some transitioned to online-only sales or food takeout options through social media. This must have been especially challenging for an entire street fair! But the Hester Street Fair made it work. They started posting their vendors’ wares on Instagram and even began hosting Instagram Live DJ Sets, workshops and tutorials.
And now, after several months of digital-only engagement, the fair is back IRL! This past weekend, on August 15th, the Hester Street Fair officially reopened to the public on their usual Saturday and Sunday schedule. They will be open weekly until October 31st. I highly recommend taking a trip down to the Lower East Side for a stroll around the market. You might not see any of the old pushcarts, but you will still be walking through history.
While you’re in the neighborhood, take a walk past the Museum at Eldridge Street as well! While we’re not open to the public, our facade still makes a great photo op. Glance up at our historic building and think about all of the people who probably walked from there to Hester Street to pick up something at the pushcarts on their way home from synagogue. After all, a day in the life of a Lower East Sider was never complete without a stop at a pushcart! Can you imagine your day to day without stopping at the bodega?
Haley Coopersmith is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Manager of Public Programs.