Seeds of today’s Greenmarket were planted in ’76

Photo courtesy of G.V.S.H.P. Barry Benepe speaking at St. Brigid’s Church earlier this month about the history of the city’s Greenmarket program.
Photo courtesy of G.V.S.H.P.
Barry Benepe speaking at St. Brigid’s Church earlier this month about the history of the city’s Greenmarket program.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU   |  Barry Benepe, co-founder of the Greenmarket program, where farmers bring their products directly to city consumers, spoke last week about how it all began 38 years ago and how today it has grown to 60 markets in the five boroughs.

Benepe, a planner and architect, led the event, held Oct. 7 at St. Brigid’s Church on Avenue B, and co-sponsored by Grow NYC, which now runs the city’s Greenmarkets, and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Washington Market Park, City Hall, and now Water St.are among the nearby locations where farmers from a 150-mile (and larger) radius arrive for their weekly outdoor rendezvous with their city customers.

Celebrity chefs and restaurateurs join the thousands of shoppers who come to the markets for varieties of fruits and vegetables rarely found elsewhere. In recent years, producers of fresh meat, fish and whole milk in glass bottles have come into the markets.

Greenmarkets, hugely popular from the beginning, were an idea whose time had come.

Co-founding the program with Benepe was Bob Lewis, a fellow planner who worked for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“Bob Lewis and I were concerned that the spread of suburban development was eating up farmland and that our sources of food were moving farther and farther away,” Benepe explained.

With Lewis responsible for reaching farmers and Benepe handling relations with government agencies and fundraising, the first Greenmarket project began in 1976 — dark days in municipal affairs.

The founders received permission to use a vacant city-owned site at 59th St. and Second Ave., where the Roosevelt Island tram terminal was built a few years later.

“It was a case of ‘location, location, location’ and we had an ideal location,” Benepe recalled. “It was a fenced lot between Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s. We didn’t have to do any publicity; the newspapers and TV came to us to cover the opening. We were the good news after all the bad news of the day.”

“If the 59th St. market hadn’t done so well immediately, we might have failed,” Benepe said.

“In the summer of 1976, the Department of City Planning asked if we could open a Greenmarket in Union Square Park,” he said, recalling that the park had fallen on bad times and had become the local center for illegal drug deals. “S. Klein, a major discount department store, closed its store on Union Square where it had been for decades. The city thought we could help bring the neighborhood back,” Benepe recalled.

The new market in the street-level plaza on the north side of the park had to contend with the menace of the drug trade and the general decline of the neighborhood.

“It was not an easy success,” Benepe said. “It took three years for the market to catch on.”

Union Square’s north plaza has a long tradition as a public venue. For decades it has been the site of political and labor union rallies. Each spring, flower and plant vendors would conduct a market in the space.

The Union Square Greenmarket has become the flagship of the entire program, expanding down the park’s west side and doing business year-round four days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The third market to open in 1976 was in Brooklyn at Atlantic and Flatbush Aves.

Before the first markets opened, Benepe had to raise money for the program.

“I went to Jack Kaplan, who was head of the J.M. Kaplan Fund,” he recalled. “It was appropriate because Jack made his money from his sale of Welch’s grape juice.”

“We needed $35,000 and the Kaplan fund said they could give us $15,000,” he added. “They gave us $10,000, so we had to look for the rest. We got some from The Fund for the City of New York. The Council on the Environment of New York City, which later became Grow NYC, became our main sponsor.”

At first, the Wholesale Grocers Association opposed the Greenmarket program.

“They stopped their opposition when they found out that it was farm produce,” Benepe explained. “They didn’t care about that.”

As the program became known, farmers far and wide wanted to join.

“We had one farmer from Delaware who loaded a school bus full of melons and drove it to the city. He sold every one. But our farmers’ council said it wasn’t fair to bring in growers from far outside the region, so we narrowed the radius,” Benepe said. “The council doesn’t decide who joins the market, but we take their opinions seriously.”

The farming region is centered on the Hudson Valley, but it is part of a larger system of valleys that extend from Pennsylvania through New Jersey and New York up to Massachusetts and west along the Mohawk Valley to the Finger Lakes. It includes what is known as the Black Dirt region of very fertile earth — “muck” as the locals call it — from Orange County, N.Y., through Sussex County, N.J. It is part of a centuries-old wetland that has been farmed since it was drained in the mid-19th century.

Benepe has firsthand farm experience.

“My father bought a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in 1938 when I was 10 years old,” he said. “It was not just a hobby, it was run to make it pay.”

The New York City Greenmarket program has inspired similar enterprises in New Jersey, Long Island and beyond. Benepe, who had just returned from a four-week stay in Paris, proudly displayed a poster proclaiming a greenmarket opening in the French capital.

Greenmarkets have become an important source of farm income, Benepe noted.

“We’ve played a role in helping people get started in farming and remaining in farming,” he said. “The children and grandchildren of farmers who started with us are coming to the Greenmarkets. They see a future in farming.”