Telling Totes at the Essex Street Market

Fig.1. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Hamby

This essay appeared on City Amplified, Oral Histories and Radical Archives publication, by The Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY, edited by Allison Guess and Prithi Kanakamedala


In 2018 the Lower East Side’s historic Essex Street Market is closing and relocating as part of the Essex Crossing development. The old building will be demolished to make way for new developments. This move is bittersweet, on the one hand, business owners from the old building will have newly upgraded facilities to work from, on the other, their connection to place, history and sense of belonging will be shaken as the old market disappears and, with it, the stories that lived through its hallways and aisles. These stories are mostly immigrant stories.

The Essex Street Market serves as a marker for generations of the vibrant immigrant communities that live around it. Since 1940 different vendors from Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Chinese backgrounds, to name a few, called the Essex Market home. The influx of immigrants makes the market a thriving place to buy groceries and products from home. It also serves as a space for the community; people connect with each other while walking through the aisles, or sit to have a bite to eat.

In the context of this historic time, I was tasked to do a project about the market. Curator Anna Harsanyi, invited me to participate in a group exhibition called In, Of and Crossing Essex, at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space, a nonprofit space run by Artists Alliance within the market. The exhibition was meant to “…explore the public and private histories of the Market through the stories, perspectives, and lived experiences of the people who work and shop there every day.” As an artist working at the intersection of community and design, I was interested in highlighting business owners perspectives and stories in this time of transition.

Fig.2. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Hamby

I developed a project called Messages to Go and I interviewed 10 out of 26 the Essex Street Market’s vendors. Through my interviews, I learned about their experiences as business owners and I documented their unique perspectives on the role of the market within the neighborhood. From those conversations, I chose quotes, one per vendor, and designed 10 different reusable bags featuring each person that I had an opportunity to speak with. This was done in consultation with the vendors and approved by them before going into production. In the end, we produced 1,500 bags that were given to the vendors and made available to customers at the participating businesses throughout the market. As a result, the bags become part of a larger network of visitors outside of the Market, amplifying the stories and anecdotes featured in their designs.


Messages to Go Hatuey Ramos Fermín. Summer 2018. Accessed October 04, 2018. https://hatuey.art/portfolio/messagestogo/.