Markets have been a staple of New York City life since the 1600s, when the Dutch established the Marketfield next to Fort Amsterdam. By the early 1900s, there were approximately 2,500 active open-air vendors operating in the city with little to no oversight. This led to corruption and unsanitary conditions. In 1918, as a response to the growing health hazards and corrupt officials, the City established the Department of Public Markets to oversee food distribution, relations between farmers and consumers, and pushcart peddling. While many markets were built by the Department, our blog this week tells the story of Brooklyn’s “Eighth Ward Public Market.” The intricate drawings and blueprints of the proposed market in the collection of the Municipal Archives illustrate what would have been a striking addition to the City’s infrastructure. Sadly, the market never became a reality.
Many New York City covered markets in the early 20th century were designed with brick and terracotta buildings that demarcated their boundaries. The second floor of the buildings, for the most part, housed the market headquarters and offices. Popular covered markets included the West Washington Poultry Market, which stood at West Street and Gansevoort Street, in Greenwich Village, and the original Fulton Fish Market near the Brooklyn Bridge.
However, for every covered market that was built, most proposed during the 19th and early 20th centuries remained unbuilt. One such market would have been located on a two-block stretch of Brooklyn waterfront between 36th and 38th Streets. This market began its surprisingly long and ultimately doomed journey in 1895. Irving T. Bush, working under the name of his family's company, The Bush Co., organized six warehouses and one pier as a freight handling terminal on the waterfront of South Brooklyn. During the early days of Bush Terminal (today known as Industry City) it had many detractors and earned the moniker, “Bush’s Folly.” However, by 1918, The Bush Co. owned the Bush Terminal Railroad Company as well as 3,100 feet of Brooklyn waterfront, along 20 blocks.
In 1906, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment authorized $2,000,000 and bond premiums in the amount of $204,094.13 (over $5.7 million today) for the Brooklyn market. Following that approval, in January 1909, the Board of Estimate adopted an ordinance, authorized by the Comptroller and approved by Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., for the issuance of corporate stock in the amount of $45,000.00 (over $1.2 million today). This funding was designated for use by the Brooklyn Borough President, Bird S. Coler, for preparation and extension of land for a public market in Brooklyn’s Eighth Ward.
Plans and drawings show that the ambitious market would cover approximately 20-acres and include dedicated trolley tracks to bring goods and supplies directly to every individual stall or shop in the market. Intricately detailed blueprints note that the market would have its own electric lighting, heating, and refrigeration plants, an incinerator, as well as pavements specially graded in order to ensure optimal drainage.
This waterfront market would also include a large public bath with a recreational pier. The public baths were to be the centerpiece of the market and would help the City comply with an 1895 State law requiring construction of free public baths in cities with a population over 50,000. Newspapers of the time lauded the public market as the single most important part of the South Brooklyn Waterfront Improvement Project.
The public baths incorporated men’s and women’s entrances, toilets, offices and stores. The plans accounted for 42 male showers and 29 female showers.
By 1911, it was clear that long delays in construction of the market were becoming burdensome to both residents and officials of the city. Commissioner of Docks and Ferries Calvin Tomkins, also believed that as Bush Terminal grew and the New York Dock Company tracks were built around the proposed public market site, it was no longer feasible or wise to build the market at the original site.
Nonetheless, in January of 1912, at a meeting held by the South Brooklyn Board of Trade, members seemed sure that construction of the market would continue at the original location. Drawings and blueprints clearly show the level of detail and planning that had gone into the design of the market. The main discussion at the meeting focused on renaming the market from the Eighth Ward Public Market to The South Brooklyn Public Market - a possible portent for plans of a market serving more than the local community. Attendees also praised the installation of a high water pressure system that would ensure enormous savings to the manufacturing and shipping interests of the area.
In April 1912, Docks Commissioner Tomkins convened a public meeting at Prospect Hall. His proposal to move the market site was met with loud protest by over two thousand residents. Many vocalized the need to retain the original site due to the amount of money already spent (the Board of Estimate had allocated $500,000 to continue construction). Tomkins argued that the market would serve the entire City; not just the Eighth Ward community: “It must be connected with other large improvements. It must be accessible. It must have approaches by rail and by water, and it must be centrally located.”
Eventually, with continued discussions and further endorsements by and between the Borough President, the Commissioner of Public Works and the Tax Commissioner, a second site was settled upon: Seventeenth Street at the Gowanus Canal. But alas, by 1915, Brooklyn still did not have its public market on either of the chosen sites. Frustrated Brooklyn residents blamed this on the politicians from Manhattan.
In 1918, a South Brooklyn market did finally open, at Hicks and Baltic Streets. The market was small and served the immediate community; it was set up by the South Brooklyn League. As late as 1924, there was still a glimmer of hope for the Eighth Ward Public Market, with the 7th Assembly District Republican Club endorsing it. However, by July 1934, there was no market and an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle put to rest any further claim of a market coming to the area:
“Seventy-five workmen are engaged in converting the city-owned property…once set aside as the site of the proposed 8th Ward Market and an ‘eye-sore’ for the past 25 years, into a permanent playground and baseball field.”
Today, the waterfront area once reserved for the Eighth Ward Public Market is part of the sprawling Industry City complex and home to the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal, with popular restaurants, storefronts, offices and warehouse space for many of New York’s museums and retailers.
While Brooklyn’s Eighth Ward Public Market was never built, and the Lower East Side continued to be the hub of covered and pushcart markets life, its shadow remains in beautifully illustrated drawings and diagrams; there are annual reports and newspapers which discuss budgets, neighborhood concerns and political battles, all of which remind us of the grand market that never was.