President’s Letter: November 2023
Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein
I am one of those people who rarely, if ever, played hooky in high school. Part of it was that my commute to Bronx Science was a long one and that was where all of my friends were. They came from all over town, too, so there was kind of no point.
So, it was with a little guilt that I cut into my business day and set off to visit the Flower District on West 28th Street several weeks ago. I have always wanted to go. I have walked by and through the Flower District many times, but never with the express intent to acquire flowers. My current curiosity was provoked by my visit the weekly flower market in Bologna, Italy a few months ago. That market is in a piazza surrounded by historic porticos, and adjacent to one of the most ancient churches in the city. It is beautiful and vibrant and full of people.
New York’s Flower District has always intrigued me, as a bit of old New York, for sure. But it is also a tenacious piece of legacy retail that has dwindled but is not lost. I wanted to see how it worked. I was given some good advice that you should avoid the first few hours after the shops open because that is when the professionals arrive from the florist shops, event production companies and the like. Apparently, most wholesale purveyors open around 4:00 in the morning and by 10:30 they are closed. I arrived around 8 am. Some of the wholesale purveyors will also sell retail after their early hour rush.
It was bustling even in the latter part of their day. The Flower District is located by and large on West 28th between 6th and 7th Avenue with a little spill over south onto 6thAvenue. As I rounded the corner from a very nondescript part of 6th Avenue, I was amazed to see a forest of plants, lining both sides of the sidewalk. Narcissus poking their heads out of flowerpots, bromeliads in a huge array of colors, palm trees of a wide variety and orchids in every hue. (And a Watch Cat or two!)
The Flower District started in New York on West Canal Street and then moved to Union Square in 1891. Almost simultaneously, some businesses started to have shops on West 28th Street. Ultimately, Schoolhouse Number 48, built in 1854 was converted to other uses. It still stands, adapted for wholesale flower businesses.
The flower industry was very seasonal until greenhouses, developed in the latter 1800s, allowed for cut flowers to be grown throughout the year. The vibrant businesses on 28th Street are in some cases decades old. Superior Flowers with a wonderful neon sign, was established in 1930. Associate Cut Flowers began around the corner on 6th Avenue in 1957. Some are much more recent such as Empire Cut Flowers which was founded in 2002.
One of my favorite shops, Caribbean Cuts, had been recommended by intrepid friends. They have exotic leaves of every shape and color, with ginger flowers of every size, as well as tropical trees ranging from Ponytail Palms to banana trees. They have several farms in Puerto Rico that provide their products.
In my poking around to gather information about my adventure to the Flower District, I found a great website and book, just recently published NEW YORK CITY HISTORIC FLORAL DISTRICT by James-Francois Pijuan. I haven’t gotten my paws on the book yet. But if the website is any indication, it will be a fun read.
Like many of New York City’s most interesting pockets of commerce, the Flower District is pressured on all sides by other development, in this case hotels and some residential. I was reassured by the fact that the businesses there are both old and new. That is a sign of vibrancy that is encouraging. However, it is hard not to worry that this colorful part of New York might disappear. I hope that you too will take a trip there, next time you are on the hunt for flowers beyond what your local bodega can provide. It was definitely worth it for me, and I will go back. Like great pastrami, it is worth going a little afield of my routines.
Thank you, as always, for all your support! I am very grateful. I hope you have a wonderful adventure somewhere you have been meaning to go to this holiday season.
President, Municipal Art Society of New York