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Only in New York

When I drive into New York City, I have the strange feeling of piercing a bubble. I’m not just entering a city, I’m penetrating a whole different world, with its own rules, its own beauties and dangers.

A city like this—with 8.74 million people (for the city itself; the metropolitan area has about 20 million) and a population that is said to be the most ethnically diverse in the world—is going to have unique needs in most areas, including its produce supply.

The mainstay of the New York produce industry is the Hunts Point Terminal Market, located on the Hunts Point peninsula in the south Bronx. “Hunt’s Point . . . is easily definable as it is cut off from the rest of the Bronx by pedal-to-the-metal Bruckner Expressway, the East River, and the Bronx River,” observes the Forgotten New York website.

The history of Hunts Point matches that of many other parts of the great metropolis. Originally settled in 1694, it was the site of the estates of large landowners until around 1850. Between 1850 and 1918, it became popular as a seat for suburban homes of wealthy families.

This came to an abrupt end after World War I, when railroad lines expanded into the area, and streets and apartment buildings rapidly replaced country retreats.

The period also saw the expansion of industry, because business owners realized the location’s advantages: close access to four of the city’s five boroughs and to the tristate region comprising New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Ample space also led to industrial development, and to this day Hunts Point is more of an industrial than a residential part of New York City.

From 1812 on, New York had been supplied with produce by the Washington Market in lower Manhattan, but in 1966 the market was relocated the Bronx. (The old site is now Washington Market Park.) The Hunts Point Terminal Market opened in 1967, followed by the Hunts Point Meat Market in 1974, making Hunts Point a major nexus of food suppliers.

To clarify a little, the overarching entity is called the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center, which occupies nearly half of the 324 acres of the Hunts Point peninsula. It consists of three smaller units: the Hunts Point Terminal Market (for produce), the Hunts Point Cooperative Meat Market (for meat), and the New Fulton Fish Market (for fish and seafood).

Each of these in turns leases space to vendors and distributors, many of them family outfits that have been passed down from generation to generation. The City of New York owns the land and leases it to these markets through its Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). The NYCEDC leases additional space to companies such as Baldor, Krasdale Foods, and Dairyland.

The Hunts Point Terminal Market is the largest of the three food markets; in fact, confusingly, it’s sometimes simply known as “the market.”

As for statistics, the NYCEDC website says, “The Terminal Produce Market occupies 105 acres, and consists of four primary warehouse structures, two adjunct warehouses, and various administrative and maintenance structures, making it the largest produce market in the country.

The market is home to 47 merchants ranging from small firms with three employees to large firms with approximately 400 employees for an aggregate total of roughly 3,000 employees.

The market captures an estimated $2-2.3 billion in revenue per year, or 22% of regional wholesale produce sales, equivalent to approximately 60% of the produce sales within New York City.” The Hunts Point Terminal website boasts that the market supplies produce to 23,000 restaurateurs.

The Hunts Point site is well chosen; it is probably the location that is most centrally accessible to the three boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx, with Brooklyn only slightly further. (The fifth borough, Staten Island, is more remote from the other four.)

And yet over the years there has been intermittent talk about relocating the market (say to New Jersey), which might reduce gridlock problems. Furthermore, the present terminal’s electrical facilities need to be upgraded, and there is a lack of space. Much produce is actually stored in refrigerated trucks, whose continuous burning of diesel fuel adds to pollution.

“It not being an indoor market, if you’ve got a load of broccoli and you’ve got hot temperatures, you’re going to keep your broccoli on the van,” explains Jim Margiotta, president and owner of J. Margiotta Company BB #:169076.

Furthermore, “a lot of merchants have run out of room in their facilities for storing stuff. They have to use external refrigeration.”

This is a multi-part spotlight feature on New York produce adapted from the October 2019 issue of Produce Blueprints.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.