New York City’s historic flower district
It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a jungle. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a certain 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 city’s teeming sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle.
Located just south of McDonalds, New York City’s flower district covers just a little over a block between 7th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. But what it may lack for 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 and indoor tropical plants to exotic orchids, unusual foliage, spring flowering branches and floral supplies.
A walk through the district immediately immerses you in the smell of fresh greenery and floral fragrances emanating from the hundreds of plants lining the sidewalk. During our visit, we navigated around jumbles of colorful bedding plants, metal buckets overflowing with fresh flowers and giant shrubs standing guard at the curbside. As delivery men raced past us pushing carts loaded with foliage, we peered into humid shops selling towering palms, tropical houseplants and rows of exotic orchids, stacked floor to ceiling.
A centuries old tradition
Today’s flower district is heir to a rich tradition going all the way back to the 19th century. Many of the vendors have been in business for generations. The city’s original floral trade began on a ferry dock on East 34th street where it eventually became known as the Chelsea Flower Market. Wholesalers would gather at the dock to sell flowers that were brought in by ferry from growers on Long Island. The mostly German, Italian, Polish and Greek immigrants sold their fresh merchandise from tiny shops and wooden pushcarts to retailers throughout the city.
As demand rose for cut flowers, many of the wholesalers relocated to West 28th street to gain access to more affluent buyers and to be closer to Ladies’ Mile, home to many of the day’s most fashionable department stores, including Bergdorf Goodman and Lord and Taylor. 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 bundles of cut flowers and tropical houseplants from trucks and rolling plant racks into position in front of the various wholesale establishments. While we sidestepped around colorful flats of plants, a steady stream of white vans, emblazoned with the logos of area nurseries, pulled up alongside us to double-park on the already congested street.
Although we had arrived at 9:30 am, the real action is said to begin around 5 am. That’s when designers, florists and other professionals start appearing to select from the first deliveries of the day. Many have developed special relationships with particular wholesale establishments over the years who regularly supply them with rare and unusual specimens.
A peek into International Garden Inc. is a journey back to the early 20th century. Its white tiled walls with black banding, old fashioned lettering and wall-mounted staghorn ferns add to the old-time charm, providing a glimpse into what the New York City flower district might have looked like in its heyday. We observed a number of professionals standing lost in thought before tables stocked high with exotic foliage while elsewhere designers provided creative direction to staff as they rapidly assembled arrangements.
As we navigated the market, towering palms, clipped yews and upright box temporarily muffled out the noise of the city. In front of one store we stopped to admire the wide selection of spring-flowering branches including cherry, forsythia and pussy willows, wrapped tightly in bundles. Stacked upright and leaning closely together, they were almost as tall as we were.
While the 5 am crowd is strictly composed of professional designers and florists, by mid morning when the market opens to the general public, the sidewalks are teeming with everyday people. The atmosphere is bustling and sociable, with lots of interaction between buyers and sellers. This is partly due to the fact that none of the plants are priced, which makes it necessary to approach owners to bargain.
Caribbean Cuts, located at 120 West 28th, specializes in unusual tropical flowers and foliage from Puerto Rico. Their impressive merchandise includes gigantic elephant ears, eucalyptus and palm fronds as well as exotic florals. The 12-year-old business own farms in the Caribbean where they grow their own products for sale.
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 for the city.
Sadly today, the number of vendors in New York’s flower district has dwindled to only around two dozen shops, battered by pressure to turn valuable real estate into more profitable ventures. There has been talk about moving the market, but so far no new location has been identified. Meanwhile the vendors continue to do a lively trade, supplying fresh florals to the top designers and hotels in the city.
The New York City Flower District is open Monday through Saturday. Get there early to get in on the action. Most vendors close up shop around noon.