New York City’s historic flower district
It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a tropical forest. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a stretch of New York City’s West 28th street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the busy sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle.
ABOUT THE DISTRICT
Located just south of McDonalds, New York City’s flower district occupies just a little over a block between 6th and 7th Avenues. But what it may lack in size, it more than makes up for in appearance. The garden oasis is home to about two dozen vendors specializing in everything from fresh-cut flowers to indoor plants. There are also gobs of exotic orchids, foliage for arrangements, floral supplies and spring flowering branches.
Who can help but feel rejuvenated when surrounded by fresh greenery and floral fragrance? During a recent visit, we navigated around colorful jumbles of bedding plants, metal buckets overflowing with flowers and evergreen shrubs lined up like soldiers at curbside.
A CENTURIES OLD TRADITION
Today’s flower district is heir to a rich tradition dating back to the late 19th century. Many of the vendors have been in business for generations. The city’s floral trade began on a dock on East 34th street that later became known as the Chelsea Flower Market. In those days, wholesalers would go down to the waterfront to buy flowers brought in by ferry from Long Island. They then resold their merchandise to retailers throughout the city.
As demand for cut flowers grew, many wholesalers relocated to West 28th street to gain access to more affluent buyers. This included ‘Ladies’ Mile’, home to many of the day’s most fashionable department stores like Bergdorf Goodman. Gradually over time, New York City’s flower district was born.
New York City Flower Market circa 1904
By the mid 20th century, the market was flourishing with around 60 vendors. According to a 2004 New York Times article, by 1977 more flowers were being bought and sold in New York than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Amsterdam.
THE FLORAL RUSH HOUR
On the morning of our visit, deliverymen were rapidly unloading cartons of flowers and plants, placing them on racks and positioning them in front of the many establishments. A steady stream of delivery trucks, emblazoned with nursery logos, continually pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already-congested street.
We had arrived at 9:30 am, but the real action had started around 5. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals begin arriving to choose from the day’s first deliveries. Over the years, many have developed special relationships with wholesalers who regularly supply them with exotic species.
A peek into International Garden Inc. transported us back to the early 20th century. The shop’s floor-to-ceiling white tiles, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted ferns offer a glimpse into what the New York City flower district probably looked like in its heyday. We watched as professionals chose from tables stocked high with tropical foliage. Elsewhere, designers managed staff as they rapidly assembled arrangements.
As we toured the market, the thick greenery temporarily muffled the sounds of the city. We paused in front of one store to admire the wide variety of spring-flowering branches including cherry and forsythia. Wrapped tightly in bundles, the narrow packages were almost as tall as we were.
BARGAINING IS KEY
While the 5 am crowd is made up strictly of designers and florists, by mid morning the sidewalks are teeming with everyday people. The atmosphere is bustling and social, with lots of interaction between buyers and sellers. This is partly due to the fact that none of the plants are priced, making bargaining a necessity.
Caribbean Cuts, located at 120 West 28th, specializes in unusual tropical flowers and foliage from Puerto Rico. The store’s impressive merchandise includes gigantic elephant ears, eucalyptus, palm fronds and florals. Now in its 14th year, Caribbean Cuts grows all its plants on farms it owns in the Caribbean.
Exotic palms for sale at NYC’s Caribbean Cuts
My daughter nicknamed this alley ‘Plants waiting to get into the club,’ which seemed somehow appropriate.
Sadly today, the number of vendors in New York’s flower district has dwindled. There are now only around two dozen shops, battered by pressure to turn valuable real estate into more profitable ventures. People talk about moving the market, but so far a new location has not been identified. Meanwhile the vendors continue to do a lively trade, supplying fresh florals, tropical foliage and plants to the top designers and hotels in the city.
The New York City Flower District is open Monday through Saturday. Arrive early to get in on the action. Most vendors close up shop around noon.