Breathing fresh life to an old institution

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A beautiful morning in New York’s East Harlem, also known as “El Barrio,” as I wait here at “La Marqueta” for a friend of mine, Derick Lopez, creator of The Freakin Rican Restaurant. I am transported back in time to when I was a 5-year-old child. My mother used to bring me to this old market area to visit family and buy fresh produce for dinner. The area was housed under the elevated Metro-North train tracks at East 116th Street between Park Avenue North and Park Avenue South.

I can still remember the vendors calling out their products, the music playing, the high energy, and the smell of different herbs and fresh products. In my household, my mother went wherever I went. I had the typical protective mother who would not lose sight of me. Frankly, I now appreciate that I learned so much from her—particularly cooking.

1cb1e135cc412bff3ef5d62196f6031fAs I am sitting here, I start seeing vans and small trucks pulling to the side of the street. People start taking out their folding chairs and tables, small fryers, pots, and pans, and then start cooking products, baked goods, and so on. My friend Derick is going to be serving food at his pop-up restaurant. I admit that I’d heard so much about this space from Derick and wasn’t really convinced. I had to experience it for myself.

The original Marqueta had a great run in its heyday. In the 1950s and 1960s, it had more than 500 vendors. It had building after building under the elevated tracks. Nowadays, there is only one enclosed building left. There is one green garden on the north side of 116th Street, and on the south side between 116th and 115th Streets there is an open space that houses greengrocers during the week and, on Sundays, what is now known as Vendy Plaza. After the opening of chain supermarkets and bodegas, the declining economy really hurt La Marqueta, leaving only four vendors by 2008. By 2011, the numbers had increased to ten, but it still wasn’t enough. There have been many efforts by the city of New York to revive its heyday, trying to determine what works and what doesn’t. Finally, the city decided to use the open space as an artists’ space and to invite small-business owners and salsa bands there on Sundays, attracting crowds and setting the area on the right path.

Within an hour and a half, the space has transformed into a vibrant, energetic, fun-filled place. Food is cooking, beer is flowing. The DJ is spinning some classic salsa and boogaloo. People are dancing, eating, and drinking. An older woman of about 80 years tells me, “I come here every weekend to listen to the live bands and enjoy the atmosphere. I have CDs, cassettes, and vinyl at home, and I can listen to music whenever I choose, but coming here is a highlight for me, and I am ever so grateful for this venue.”La-Marqueta-1986-Dith-Pran

Thanks to Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, GrowNYC, La Marqueta Retoña (an initiative to revive the social and cultural elements of this historical site), the NYC City Council, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, La Marqueta is slowly coming back. There have been funds of up to $3 million allocated for the renovation and revitalization of La Placita, the open-space area and only building left, which is slowly starting to house small vendors with a shared-space kitchen, provided by Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates.

I am so glad my friend Derick asked me to join him today and that I got to spend time here. I arrived around 10 a.m. and did not leave until seven hours later. I thoroughly enjoyed the energy, the people, and the space. I even bought myself a cigar from the Dominican cigar maker. I recommend that everyone take a trip to the heart of El Barrio on any given day and enjoy La Marqueta. It’s worth every minute.

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