Rising Up From Under the Tracks
In the 1950s and 60s, the underside of the elevated train tracks in East Harlem, stretching from East 111th to 116th Street along Park Avenue, was home to a thriving center for food, commerce, and culture called La Marqueta. In those days, over 500 vendors of mostly Puerto Rican descent could be found selling food, music, clothing, and all other sorts of goods. According to The New York Times, “merchants presided over stalls selling, among other things, rabbits, tube socks and Tito Puente records,” and according to the Center for An Urban Future, customers flocked from all over “to buy avocadoes, guavas, cassava, and tamarind,” items that were rare around the city at the time.
The market saw great decline beginning in the 1970s, and over the years, all but one of the original five buildings were destroyed or shuttered, while the last building struggled to fill its stalls with an adequate number of vendors.
In 2011, a glimmer of hope returned to the market, as the New York City Council and the New York Economic Development Corporation began work to modernize La Marqueta, converting underutilized spaces on the property into fully-equipped commercial kitchens and added retail space.
In order to put the new kitchen space to use, the operations of the successful social enterprise Hot Bread Kitchen were moved in, and the company was chosen to lead a food business incubation program called HBK Incubates.
At the Fall Forum on Growing Good Food Jobs in New York City in October, Beatriz Mieses, the Training Director for Hot Bread Kitchen, explained that the company’s trainees, most of whom are foreign-born or low income women, are trained in baking, as well as in leadership skills, business development, and English, and that they are paid for their training. Now, with the addition of the incubation program, Hot Bread Kitchen has the capacity to offer low-cost shared kitchen space for up to 40 food start-ups or expanding food businesses, and all types of food are welcome, not just bread. As of the presentation in October, there were 38 businesses participating in the incubation program, each of which stay in the program between 1 and 4 years. Graduates of the trainee program can launch their own businesses through the incubation program, and everyone involved can utilize the market space to sell what they produce.
I stopped by La Marqueta after the event and sampled some delicious bread and coffee from Hot Bread Kitchen’s cafe stall. Activity at the other stalls was a little sleepy on a weekday morning, the outdoor spaces sat empty, and it was evident that there is still renovation work being done, but the kitchens and training space in the back were busy, there were signs for upcoming events all over, and there was clearly a celebration of diversity and local culture. Things are looking up once again.
Photos taken October, 2013.
For more information on Hot Bread Kitchen and La Marqueta, check out these great videos:
Sources and Further Reading:
Hot Bread Kitchen
La Marqueta (NYC Economic Development Corporation)
HBK Incubates (NYC Economic Development Corporation)
Hope Amid the Plantains (New York Times, 2009)
A High Line for Harlem (report by the Center for an Urban Future, 2010)
La Marqueta Mile (alternate proposal for La Marqueta by Harlem Community Development Corporation, 2010)