First Avenue Retail Market: Then & Now
The East Village is renowned for its avant-garde, Off-Off Broadway theaters. One of the great examples is the Theater for the New City. Founded in 1971 by Crystal Field, George Bartenieff, Lawrence Kornfeld, and Theo Barnes, TNC was an offshoot of the Judson Poets Theater. Then-Mayor John Lindsay had recently given a speech envisioning a “new city” for all and, thus, Theater for the New City was born. For its first year, TNC resided at a space in Westbeth. After this first year, Kornfeld and Barnes resigned and the theater moved to the Jane Hotel In 1977, TNC moved East to the Tabernacle Baptist Church at 156 2nd Avenue where it continued its tradition of presenting radical works and experimental performances. By 1986, rising rents forced TNC out of its home once again, but with the help of Bess Myerson, Ruth Messinger, and David Dinkins, they were able to purchase a 30,000 square foot, former-WPA building being used as storage for the Sanitation Department just one block east on 1st Avenue. The new home they would inhabit, though, had a rich history all its own….
In the early twentieth century open-air public markets began to sprout up all over New York City, and in 1917 an official Department of Markets was formed. Prior to this, markets were not regulated, and were all too often filthy, crowded, and known for corruption. The establishment of the Department of Markets did help curb these negative attributes, but it wasn’t until the election of Mayor LaGuardia in 1933 that market reform truly took off. LaGuardia is known for removing pushcarts from city streets, and he also abolished open-air markets upon appointing William Fellowes Morgan, Jr. to head the Department of Markets. According to a report by the Municipal Art Society, LaGuardia used federal WPA funds to create several indoor markets that were required to have running water, rail facilities, and loading platforms. In 1937, architects Albert W. Lewis and John D. Churchill were commissioned by the Department of Markets to design several of these buildings including the new Fulton Fish Market Complex, the Gansevoort Market, the Bronx Terminal Market, and the First Avenue Retail Market.
The latter was constructed in 1938 in an L-shaped scheme that spanned numbers 155-157 1st Avenue and numbers 230-240 East 10th Street. Historic photos show a bustling neighborhood market that sold cheese (a 1947 New Yorker article states that the cheese vendor sold 300 varieties!), vegetables, and likely everything in between up until 1965.
When the Theater for the New City purchased the former First Avenue Retail Market building there was stipulation that they had to still share part of the space with the Sanitation Department for a time. They didn’t have enough money to complete the 4 theaters, dance space, cafe, administrative offices, and rehearsal spaces, but put on shows regardless, creating interim theaters. Field and Bartenieff completed TNC’s home with $2 million they had raised. The City, however, retained the air rights to the building, and in 2001, a 16-story residential tower was erected above the theater that met with much controversy. Despite this construction, though, TNC remains an important East Village institution that echos the community sentiment and necessity of the former First Avenue Retail Market.