Imagine a New York market with no kale in sight. Unthinkable now, we know. But that would have been Paddy’s Market, which dominated much of 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen from the late 1870s through to 1938.
The food industry had become a mainstay of life in the neighborhood after the Civil War, and in the 1800s the West Side developed its reputation as one of the city’s primary food venues, aided by the presence of the slaughterhouses along 12th Ave.
When the 9th Ave EL (elevated railroad) was extended above W30th St in 1879, Paddy’s Market boomed, particularly on Saturdays, when shoppers came out in their droves.
The market stretched underneath the rail tracks, all the way from W35th St to W42nd St, and the air was filled with the calls of the vendors – two or three to each wagon. When the sun went down, Saturday night was party night, and it’s said the din of voices drowned out the rattle of the EL trains rumbling overhead.
During Prohibition, the street would be filled with grapes for home wine making, which was still legal. People came over from New Jersey, down from the Bronx, and up from downtown to buy vegetables, fruits, olive oil, pasta, bread, meat, fish, flowers, and poultry, as well as spices, herbs, coffee and tea.
Although Hell’s Kitchen was predominantly Irish – hence the name of the market – many of the stallholders were Italians, along with Poles, Germans, and Jews, and the market flourished alongside traditional Italian and Greek grocery stores.
The most famous merchant was Henry, the Frankfurter Man. His cart was on the corner of W40th St – 9th Ave and it was said his sauerkraut could be smelled three blocks away – four on a hot New York summer’s day!
The city decided to get rid of the peddlers in 1937 to make way for the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel. The evictees took their case to New York’s Court of Appeal in Albany before finally giving up.
Several cities around the world with large Irish immigrant populations, such as Sydney, Liverpool and Glasgow, also had “Paddy’s Markets”.
If you look closely at the picture you can see some bargains. For example, 8 “Sun-Kiss” lemons (mimicking the Sunkist trademark fruit) for 10c.
Kale didn’t make an entry into mainstream American culture until 1938. The first popular mention of kale was in 1996. The Los Angeles Times published a poem dedicated to the leafy green, entitled “Oh Kale”.
The market’s final day of trading was July 16, 1938.
This article originally appeared in Issue 11 – November 2015. Page 74.