Hawk This: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Orchard Street Pedestrian Mall

Posted on: November 6th, 2019 at 5:00 am by

The daytime bustle of Orchard Street Sundays is dead. But the Lower East Side Partnership, the area’s business improvement district, seeks a revival.

Several readers wrote us this past week regarding the removal of traffic signs denoting the weekly Sunday pedestrian mall on Orchard Street, the only closure of its kind in the Five Boroughs. Many are concerned about whether the tradition will resume, as the changes transpired with little outreach to the community.

The short answer is yes, it will return, but altogether different. One that is more aligned with the local business improvement district.

It’s a sad sight these days. Thanks to almost two decades of over-development and gentrification in the vicinity – not to mention online shopping, bars, and galleries with nothing to sell on the street – few vendors remain on this three-block stretch to maintain the Sunday tradition.

By our last unscientific count, about five discount merchants consistently display merchandise on the pavement. And you can tally the number of leather vendors on one hand. That’s a far cry from years past, even at the height of the gold rush earlier in the aughts.

So, the Partnership hopes to reanimate the sleepy pedestrian mall with “recurring programming.” This concept has been employed (or tested) in recent years with DayLife festivals and the annual Lower East Side Pickle Day. Their pitch to Community Board 3 last month was approved by the full body in order to “maintain foot traffic, support local merchants and provide better use of the public realm for enjoyment of residents improving quality of life conditions.” Further, CB3 “encourages programmatic uses that include the ability of merchants (including vetted third-party operators) to transact sales within the roadway to allow programmatic uses that are financially self-sustaining and can provide defined community benefits.”

Orchard Street was once a crammed landscape of bargain hunters and discount retailers trying to hawk their wares. First with the pushcarts of yesteryear, then brick-and-mortar. For more than a century, this area defined tumult. And with good reason. Arcane Blue Laws (repealed in the 1970s) prohibited Sunday selling across the city, but the Jewish composition of the Lower East Side was exempt; they closed for Sabbath on Saturdays and shopped a day later.

Mayor Laguardia famously relocated the pushcarts into the Essex Street Market in 1940, a move to “professionalize the peddler,” so to speak. Merchants on Orchard Street reportedly suffered a 60% hit in business a year later. Officials failed to realize that pushcarts actually attracted shoppers to the neighborhood.

It would take another three decades (1970s) before the launch of the weekly open-air market between Houston and Delancey, as a means to lure Sunday shoppers again.

Sunday shopping along Orchard Street has completely changed with the neighborhood demographics. These days, it’s galleries and restaurants ruling the roost. Plus, none of the fashion newcomers seem interested in the street selling.

Keeping Orchard Street closed to traffic on Sundays seems more out of tradition now than anything else.

Can it be saved?

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