Feeding a Growing City: Part 1

As the city's population grew, congestion caused by a mix of pedestrians, motorized traffic, and street-level freight trains slowed food delivery into New York City. Photo courtesy of the Kalmbach Publishing Company

This special blog post, the first in a two-part series (see part two), was written by Sonya Kharas of the NYU Food Studies Program and Nutshell Projects.

Last fall, Friends of the High Line announced plans to open a year-round, full-service restaurant directly below the elevated railway’s southern terminus, at Gansevoort and Washington Streets. The restaurant, to be operated by the team behind Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm, will serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, and, as it turns out, provide a perfect starting point to consider the historic role that the High Line has played in feeding New York City.

A Historic Marketplace

Decades ago, the site of the High Line’s forthcoming restaurant was home to one of the city’s most important municipal markets: the open-air Farmers’ Market, later Gansevoort Market, for regional produce. Established in 1879, the market was devoted almost entirely to the sale of fruits and vegetables, the majority of which arrived by horse-drawn wagon from nearby farms in Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Westchester.

Although the original market area has now been converted to luxury apartments, upscale retail stores, bars, and restaurants, the five-way intersection one block east of the High Line, at Gansevoort Street, hints at what this marketplace might have once been like – a bustling array of vendors, visitors, and shoppers. According to The New York Times in 1883, the space consisted of an enormous paved block, where farmers would arrive each morning with their “old-fashioned box-shaped country wagons piled up with vegetables of all descriptions.” Grocers would weave between the “throng of wagons,” as well as “housewives seeking to make cheap purchases at retail.”

Feeding a City

As New York City’s population skyrocketed around the turn of the 20th century, local farmers could no longer satisfy the metropolis’ growing appetite. At the same time, the development of the railways across the United States opened up new areas of food production, particularly in the West. By 1926, all but seven of the 48 states in the country were contributing to the city’s food supply.

Stand on today’s High Line at West 15th Street, and look west toward the Hudson River, where remains of the old piers punctuate the water’s surface. Before the construction of the High Line, which began in 1929 and was completed in 1934, these piers were one of the primary means of entry for the city’s food supply.

Most train routes at that time terminated in New Jersey, at the western bank of the Hudson River, where great ferries known as car floats carried freight cars across the river to Manhattan’s West Side. Upon arrival, gangs of workmen would unload the boxes and crates from the train cars and stack them on the pier floor for sale.

There were notable problems with this way of transporting food. First, the float operations were occasionally hampered by fog and ice. Second, this system was time consuming and expensive. According to Walter Page Heddon, the Chief of the New York Port Authority in 1929, it took eight men more than an hour to unload a single car of oranges and added nearly $30 to the product’s cost, which is equivalent to $402 today.

A second way in which food entered the city by rail was via the West Side Line, the street-level tracks laid down the middle of 10th and 11th Avenues in 1849. Operated by the New York Central Railroad Company since 1869, the West Side Line had many obvious advantages over the car float and pier system, but it was not without problems.

Sit in the amphitheater at West 16th Street on today’s High Line, look north through the glass panels, and imagine an avenue where trains shared the street with trucks, horse carriages, carts, and pedestrians. Accidents were so common that by the early 20th century, the number of reported fatalities led 10th Avenue to be dubbed “Death Avenue” and forced the railroad company to hire men-on-horseback, called “West Side Cowboys,” to ride in front of the trains and warn pedestrians and vehicular traffic. The congestion and inherent danger of this system not only slowed the speed at which food could enter the city, but spurred intense public efforts to remove the tracks from surface streets.

Sonya Kharas lives in New York City and works for Nutshell Projects, a small farm and food consultancy. She leads regular tours on the High Line focusing on the history of the railroads as it relates to food. Make sure to check out her next tour, Feeding the Future on Wednesday May 8.

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