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 FLOWER DISTRICT
Located just south of McDonalds, New York City’s flower district occupies 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. A visitor can find all kinds of flora including orchids, greenery, floral supplies and spring-flowering branches.
Who doesn’t feel happy when surrounded by fresh greenery and floral fragrance? During a recent visit, we navigated around colorful jumbles of bedding plants, buckets overflowing with flowers and evergreen shrubs lined up like soldiers at curbside. It was the perfect way to relax and unwind.
A CENTURIES-OLD TRADITION
To fully appreciate today’s flower district, it’s important to recognize that many vendors have been in business for generations. For some, their story began in the late 19th century on the East 34th Street dock. That’s where immigrants, armed with pushcarts, often gathered to buy flowers shipped in from Long Island. They then sold their products in bulk to retailers throughout the city.
As demand for cut flowers grew, many of these same wholesalers moved 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. Generation followed generation as businesses expanded. And over time, New York City’s flower district became a destination all on its own.
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, in 1977 more flowers were being bought and sold in New York than anywhere else in the world with the exception of Amsterdam.
THE FLOWER DISTRICT RUSH HOUR
On the morning of our visit, deliverymen were rapidly unloading boxes of flowers and plants and placing them on rolling racks in front of the many establishments. As we watched, a steady stream of vehicles pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already-busy street.
We had arrived at 9:30 am, but the real action begins around 5. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals start appearing to choose from the day’s first deliveries. Over the years, many have developed special relationships with wholesalers who routinely supply them with exotic species.
A peek into International Garden Inc. is a glimpse into the early 20th century. The shop’s floor-to-ceiling white tiles, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted ferns offer a taste of what New York City’s flower district probably looked like in its heyday. We watched as professionals made their selections from tables piled high with tropical foliage while 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 briefly 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 essential.
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, the business 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 City’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 high-quality 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.