LIFE BEFORE THE GREENMARKET
Most of us can hardly remember a time before the Union Square Greenmarket. We take for granted the bounty on display four days a week, the parade of fresh produce and specialty items coming from local farms in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Long Island, the Catskills, and the Hudson Valley. This wasn’t always the case.
The Greenmarket Program was established in July, 1976 with a single market at the corner of 59th Street and Second Avenue. The project was the brainchild of urban planners Bob Lewisand Barry Benepe. The Fund for the City of New York kicked in $5,000, with additional gifts from the J.M. Kaplan Fund ($10,000) and the Vincent Astor Foundation ($10,000). Armed with this much-needed seed money, the two men set out to make a difference.
A BRIEF DIGRESSION
To comprehend what a feat this was, it’s important to first understand the problem as it existed then. Between 1950 and 1970 the number of farms in the United States had declined by 50%, while the size of an average farm had more than doubled, from about 200 acres to nearly 450.
Two big things were happening to American farming: Consolidation and Specialization.
Smaller farms were suffering as farming became industrialized. Many were forced to either sell their land or specialize in order to keep up with the powerful conglomerates. Distribution was becoming centralized and the connection between farmers and the consumer was being lost. New Yorkers in 1976 had very few choices as to where to buy their produce, and it was nearly impossible to know where the food was coming from or how it was grown.
On that first day in 1976, in an abandoned Midtown parking lot, a half-dozen Long Island farmers set up stands to sell their fresh produce. Within a few weeks this Greenmarket was thriving and the City took notice. Sensing an opportunity to revitalize a decaying Union Square the city approached Benepe and Lewis with the idea to move the market. Klein’s Department Store was closing and drug dealers freely roamed the paths and walkways of Union Square Park. It was a grim place for a market and Benepe was reluctant.
In a 2012 interview in West View News, Benepe, recounted those early days: “We didn’t want to do it. Not at first. But Mayor Ed Koch was about to take office and he was a big supporter. The City really came on board and gave us all the necessary permits.” The Union Square Greenmarket would go on to become the crown jewel of the program with over 300,000 visitors every Saturday. It’s open four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), all year round. At the height of the summer season, you’ll often find more than 140 different vendors selling their goods. Today there are more than fifty Greenmarkets peppered throughout NYC’s five boroughs.
SOMETHING TRULY REMARKABLE
Barry Benepe became the project director of the Greenmarket for the Council on the Environment of New York City, better known to us these days as GrowNYC. The Greenmarket program is just one of the many efforts GrowNYC has developed to improve life in NYC. Recycling, education, and community gardens are a few of the other initiatives championed by the organization. It has been a privilege to work so closely with them all these years. Whether it’s with our “Greenmarket to Gotham” Cookbook or in hosting the GrowNYC Annual Spring Gala, Gotham has been a longtime supporter of the organization and their mission.
Gotham’s Managing Partner, Bret Csencsitz, now serves on the non-profit’s Board of Directors and assisted in the opening of their newest venture: Project Farmhouse , a state-of-the-art event space dedicated to exploring environmental issues through the lens of food, arts, and horticulture.
The fact is: Gotham’s success is inextricably linked to GrowNYC’s Greenmarket. As the Greenmarket flourished, so did Union Square. Gotham Bar & Grill would open its doors in 1984, followed by a series of other notables: Union Square Cafe (1985), Gramercy Tavern (1994), Republic (1995), Blue Water Grill (1996), and Tocqueville (2000). The area continues to thrive, now extending up Broadway toward Madison Square Park and beyond. It’s an exciting time for dining in our neighborhood, and none of it would have been possible without the efforts of Barry Benepe, and the founders of GrowNYC.