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Group Plans To Redevelop E. Harlem's La Marqueta
By Ron Howell. STAFF WRITER
November 9, 2003
From time to time, the bulb that lights the letter M goes out and the sign reads La - arqueta.
In a sense, more than the M is missing.
La Marqueta, once the pride of Spanish-speaking New York, stretched from East 111th to East 116th streets along Park Avenue in East Harlem.
More than 500 vendors sold fish, clothing, medicinal herbs, records, religious items, tropical fruits and vegetables.
Customers came from Brooklyn, the Bronx and beyond to shop and socialize, their Caribbean Spanish vying with the clucking of chickens and overhead rumbling of the old Penn Central train.
"As I remember it growing up, there were all these stalls and they were next to each other," said 61-year-old author Marta Moreno Vega, who grew up in East Harlem.
"It was a place where you would spend the whole day. Just as in the markets in Latin America, it was a thread that tied the community together."
Not so today.
On a recent weekday, the site that once would have been bursting with browsers had only one customer. The whole market now spans half a block. There are only eight businesses left.
"The last several years have been a disaster here," said Bernard Lifschultz, 84, who has been running his fish and deli business at La Marqueta for 55 years.
Hoping to restore La Marqueta to the place it once occupied in the business and social life of East Harlem - known also as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio - the Bloomberg administration has designated a group to redevelop the area.
The East Harlem Business Capital Corporation has a year to develop an acceptable plan for the property, which is owned by the city.
The treasured Hispanic market has fallen "victim to a combination of economic downturns, political upheavals, deterioration and disrepair," said the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation in a recent report. The market "stands as a relic of the past waiting for the proper attention . . . to restore it to its former glory."
The honorary chairwoman of the corporation is Olga Mendez, the Puerto Rican-born state senator who recently defected to Bloomberg's Republican Party.
"I think it's going to be a jewel of East Harlem," Mendez said of the planned new shopping center, to be called Marqueta Internacional.
"It's going to provide opportunities for people to have their own little businesses . . . and it will be like an economic engine for the entire area . . ."
Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg's Economic Development Corporation, said: "We want to establish it as an international food center that would not only provide jobs but provide a venue for local entrepreneurs to start businesses."
Originally built in 1936 when East Harlem was largely Italian and Jewish, La Marqueta's five blocks included five metal buildings. The eight current vendors are crammed into one of the two remaining original structures.
While acknowledging plans are in the early stages, Elizabeth Colon, executive director of the development group, said she would like to build new glass facades along the market strip. "We want to give it air and light, which it doesn't have now," she said.
Colon said the new Marqueta is part of a real estate boom changing the face of West and East Harlem and making it more attractive to investors and tourists.
While the old Marqueta had a distinct Puerto Rican flavor - selling bacalao (salt fish), platanos (plantains) and other items-the new one will feature products from other Latin America cultures and West Africa as well, reflecting recent immigration from those regions, Colon said.
While they welcome the city's efforts to revitalize the area, some East Harlem residents point out that previous mayors have said they wanted to rescue La Marqueta but little happened.
"I've heard about a lot of plans over the years and it's sort of like right now, when I see it I'll believe it," said Pedro Pedraza, a researcher at Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies and a longtime resident of East Harlem.
Stall owners at La Marqueta expressed cautious optimism they will be rescued from the precipice of extinction.
Justa Del Valle, 77, who came to New York from Puerto Rico in 1946, owns M & E's Place, a 6-foot long, 3-foot deep stall on the west side of the market where she sells ribbons, lace, chewing gum, popcorn, little statues and chewing tobacco.
Del Valle's monthly rent to the city Economic Development Corporation is $117.47. These days she barely makes enough to cover expenses.
"If I wasn't retired with a Social Security check, I wouldn't be able to do this," she said. She and her family have owned the business for 21 years. She knows about the corporation's plans and hope they come to pass.
"We need somebody to guide us," she said. Perhaps the person with the deepest sentimental ties to La Marqueta is Lifschultz, who opened his fish and deli business after serving in World War II. He kept it going even as Italians and Jews fled the neighborhood; even as many Puerto Ricans departed later; even as Mexicans and West Africans entered in recent years.
Lifschultz, who is Jewish, said he has come to love the place deeply. And he believes it is possible to capture some, if not all, of La Marqueta's past glory.
"It will never be what it used to be when it was in its heyday, but if it even approaches one half of what it used to be, it will do well," he said.
East Harlem's La Marqueta
ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE
La Marqueta is Spanglish, a combination of Spanish and English. In Spanish, "The Market" would be El Mercado.
1936 during the administration of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
East Harlem, though it also became known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem as Puerto Ricans moved there in growing numbers.
NUMBER OF BUSINESSES
At its peak, the market had 510 stalls. Today it has eight.
Benny's Place, a delicatessen selling bacalao (salted cod fish), lunch meats and other foods. The owner, Bernard Lifschultz, opened his stall 55 years ago.
Originally it occupied five buildings along Park Avenue between East 111th and 116th streets. Currently eight businesses occupy one of two buildings between East114th and 115th Streets.