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A Caribbean Corner of Brooklyn,
Fighting to Survive

By David Gonzalez

February 11, 2008

Inside the red brick shoe box that is the Moore Street Retail Market lies a tiny patch of Latin America. The stalls of this Brooklyn public market on the edge of Williamsburg explode with Caribbean colors and sounds, as local shoppers buy everything from yams and peppers to maracas and mystic potions.

What they can’t buy is time.

After winning a one-year reprieve from their landlord — the City of New York — the market’s 13 merchants may find themselves forced out by June if the city moves forward with a plan to demolish the building and replace it with housing. Although the merchants have been offered buyouts and the option of relocating their shops to a strip of storefronts in a public housing development, they want to stay put.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the market, said low rents and high overhead have resulted in a deficit of more than $1 million over the last four years. Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city agency, who refused interview requests, issued a brief statement saying that her agency was working with local elected officials to explore options. She would not say what those options were.

“I question their sincerity,” scoffed Gerald Esposito, the district manager of Brooklyn’s Community Board 1. “They never gave us a chance to fix something they said was broken. There was never any consultation when the whole thing first broke. I think their options are figuring how to close it without creating a scandal.”

Moore Street is one of four surviving public markets that were built during the Depression to get pushcarts off crowded and unsanitary streets. Now, the city appears to have come full circle, wanting to close Moore Street while it promotes a new generation of pushcarts that would take fresh vegetables to poor neighborhoods. The turn of events puzzled the merchants, who prided themselves on selling so many kinds of tropical fruits and roots that they put up posters detailing all the varieties.

“The city made us take them down a month ago,” said Virgilio Rodriguez, the president of the merchants association. “They just want to make everything impossible. They put us up against the wall to see if we lose hope and leave. But we will not.”

The city’s other markets have weathered good times and bad. While two of them —Arthur Avenue Market in the Bronx and the reborn Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side — are now thriving — East Harlem’s Marqueta languishes. The two green sheds underneath the Park Avenue Metro North tracks are deserted and silent, except for the rumble of passing commuter trains. Decades of pipe dreams and political intrigue have turned it into a ghost town, where only six vendors occupy a tiny corner where few customers venture.

Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History, said all of the city’s markets have struggled since the beginning.

“There is something weird about New York City’s relation to peddlers,” she said. “Few of these markets have been unqualified successes. They have no connection to the street. Their architecture is unremarkable, and so is the inside. I think they are really just attractive to the kind of population that is in transition.”

Sonia Santana and her mother, Isabel Escamilla, finally made their transition from factory hands to Moore Street merchants five years ago. They sell herbs and handicrafts from their native Mexico, catering to a growing — and homesick — population.

They pay $400 a month for their cramped stall, where plastic boxes filled with herbs reach the ceiling. “We feel safe here, not like if we were just two women by themselves in our own store,” Ms. Santana said. “We have families, so we can open when we can. We keep our own hours and do not have to depend on a boss. We are our own bosses.”

Some of the merchants have been in the market for more than 20 years, taking over from the Jewish and Italian merchants who were the local retail pioneers. The newcomers came from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, joined later by others from Mexico and Ecuador.

The largest vendors preside over stalls stuffed with slabs of dried fish, tins of crackers stacked like bricks, and crates overflowing with thick, chunky roots and tubers. Dull metal pots and pans dangle above, and stubby, colorful candles are tucked into tiny nooks.

Along the narrow aisles, people can browse shelves holding wooden plaques decorated with scenes ranging from Puerto Rico’s towns to declarations of political independence. The strains of bachata music drift from a stall that sells records, while a botanica offers potions and prayer cards for every saint, illness or misfortune imaginable.

Signs taped to ledges along several empty stalls warn “No Loitering.” Manuel Rivera sat anyway, chatting with some regulars who visited his record store. He moved here two years ago, after briefly retiring from another local record store.

“I went crazy,” he joked. “I almost couldn’t look at my wife. When you’re used to working, nothing can get you out of that habit.”

Well, almost nothing. He said the city called each of the merchants individually last year, offering them $20 a square foot to leave. Mr. Rivera and the others refused. The way they figure it, all those years of paying taxes or staying put while the neighborhood around them crashed and rebounded entitled them to some consideration.

“After you get to a certain age, you have this piece of city land to be your refuge,” he said. “Now the city wants to take us out? This was built by our taxes. They say there’s a deficit? Well, fix the deficit.”

Several local elected officials have offered to negotiate with the city to cover the deficit and are working to line up financing for redesign studies and business assistance that would enable the merchants to stay. This being Brooklyn, the political skirmish is suitably streetwise.

Matthew Trapasso, the policy director for State Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, said his boss was not opposed to housing, but only wanted to make sure that the market was upgraded and the merchants allowed to return.

“E.D.C. didn’t want to do that,” Mr. Trapasso recalled. “ ‘Fine,’ we said. ‘We are going to do whatever we can to make sure you don’t do anything. We’ll leave it as is and find the money to subsidize it.’ ”

It helps that the Moore Street Market sits in a district with some well-placed leaders: its congresswoman, Nydia M. Velásquez, presides over the Small Business Committee, and its assemblyman, Vito J. Lopez, heads the Housing Committee.

The elected officials will meet with the city in the coming weeks to see what agreement can be reached. Mr. Lopez worries that the city will still insist on moving the merchants to a far-off strip of storefronts. And he cannot understand why four stalls have been allowed to remain vacant at the market, despite inquiries from other vendors.

“When you want to evict tenants from a building, you know what a landlord does,” Mr. Lopez said. “You don’t rent the vacant ones to get everybody out. But we would probably have a third less deficit if it was fully occupied.”

Ms. Velásquez came up with $235,000 to study how to streamline operations, while Mr. Lopez has proposed that the independent Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation be named to manage the market and advise the merchants.

Joan Bartolomeo, president of the Brooklyn group, said that the market could be run more efficiently and that new revenues could come from renting out the space for after-hours events. None of that, she said, seemed to have been explored by the city.

“Everybody assumes that if you say housing, everyone is going to jump on the bandwagon,” she said. “But you can’t have houses without retail. This is a way to put into practice what we preach: preserve local business, provide local goods and keep the resources in the community.”

Beyond the buying and selling of fruits and vegetables, the fleeting exchanges and timeworn rituals at the market bind a community. There is something wistful that descends upon Gina Urban when she visits the market after a short drive from her home in Queens.

“My father used to plant these on his farm in Puerto Rico,” she said, recalling a life she left behind 54 years ago. “He planted malanga and yams. I see this, and I am on the farm again.”

She picked through a crate of cassava that rested on a gray concrete floor.

“I used to pull them up from the ground myself.”

She smiled, betraying a heart that was miles and decades away on a small island.