The Flower District

"Rhythm of a Corner" by W. Eugene Smith

"Rhythm of a Corner" by W. Eugene Smith

This week, Nick Carr‘s great film location scout oriented blog Scouting New York features the flower district on 28th Street, right around the corner from 821 Sixth Avenue.   It’s titled: The Jungles of West 28th Street – Exploring New York’s Flower District. Today, I heard Smith reference his loft space as a kind of jungle while I was cataloging a tape made from his first  guest appearance on the Long John Nebel late night radio talk show.

Here are some excerpts from Jazz Loft Project oral history work from retail and wholesale florists on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street. I’ve selected paragraphs where Sam Rosenberg and Mitchaell Vlachos talk about flower district history.  All interviews conducted by Sam Stephenson in 2006.  And visit their stores and check out their websites in the links below.

Sam Rosenberg of Superior Florist Ltd on 828 Sixth Avenue:

“And it was exciting.  The neighborhood was much more interesting than it is now.  It changed, and as far as I feel, it didn’t change for the best.  The neighborhood was full of furriers.  And furriers were predominantly Jewish and Greek, as were the florists in the neighborhood were mostly Greek.  And we happened to be one of the few Jewish florists around.”

They were wholesale, now.  They weren’t retail.  They weren’t artsy-type guys.  They were a bunch of tough guys that were here at three o’clock in the morning, and they went until about twelve or one o’clock in the afternoon.  And they were a tough bunch, really tough bunch.  And it was all Greek, Italian, a couple of Jews.

And at night, you’d come by and hear all the music coming out of these buildings.  They would practice at night.  There were a lot of hangouts here.  There was a luncheonette that was the busiest place around was called Sloppy Joe’s.  It was a filthy place, but the food was decent.  Then they had the Rainbow that you mentioned.  Sloppy Joe was owned by a Jewish fellow.  The Rainbow was Greek.  And they had Nedick’s.  Nedick’s was where you were able to get your doughnuts and coffee.”

“Yeah, there was a place on 27th Street.  What happened was a lot of farmers or farm-type people had tables in these big places.  The big place was on 27th Street and Sixth Avenue.  It was called – I forget the name of the building.  The building is gone.  But they used to ring – it was a few floors – and they would ring a bell to start selling the flowers.  The farmers would come in with their trucks and set up their tables and sell them.  But I don’t even remember that.  That was in the ’30s.

So, the flower market started on 26th Street, from 26th Street to 29th Street.  Now, it’s just a couple on 28th Street and a few on Sixth Avenue.  You couldn’t get through the street.  This was a two-way street; it’s now a one-way street.  And there was an elevated line running on this street.  It was a subway run.  And that came down in the ’30s, but I remember when a piece of it was up on 34th Street.  It turned in on 34th Street, and a piece was left up.  The elevated line – the steel was sold to Japan before the war.”

From Mitchell Vlachos, owner of wholesale florists Harry Vlachos, Inc:

“Well, you’d see in the photograph, you’d see Railway Express trucks, which we don’t see anymore.  There used to be a lot of Railway Express trucks that would come into the area.  A lot of flowers would come in from the West Coast and California on rail and Upstate on rail.  So, there were a lot of Railway Express trucks, which we don’t see now.”

“Well, many of the wholesale florists represented or were established by greenhouse growers in the area, in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York State, or Long Island.  And they needed a place for their product, so they opened up a wholesale house under their name normally.  And I guess that was where many of them came from.  And then lots of people just started.”

“My father first was a retail florist up on 207th Street and Broadway.  And then he decided, I think, at some point – I never really discussed it with him – that he would prefer to be a wholesale florist.  I think he thought that activity was more promising than being a retail florist.  So, he opened up on 28th Street; he opened up in the Market.  No, he worked with someone he knew in the Market for perhaps two or three years and then decided to go on his own.”

“Between – in one of those big – I guess it was in one of those – there are a few big buildings down in that area.  I’ve never gone and seen the particular building that they went, but the Market was on 16th Street for a few years.  It left 28th Street and went to 16th.  Then it came back to 28th.  I don’t know all the particulars.  I wasn’t involved in that one.  I don’t know whether my father – I don’t think my father ever left this area.  But they tried to establish – I guess rents were a significant factor.  It’s only in recent years that – the space between 30th Street down to 14th Street on Sixth Avenue was a kind of no-man’s-land.  There were lots of blank old buildings and small buildings and things.  This area wasn’t utilized at all.  It just seemed to be one of those dead spots, you know, that area from 30th Street down to 16th Street.  And I think that’s one of the reasons the Flower Market survived here as long as it did, because there was just no push in the area.  You know?

(Sam Stephenson):  Why was it a dead spot?

“I don’t know.  Just because it was too far from 34th Street where the action was, and it was – you know, there was some action on 23rd Street.  Then there was again, I think, more action on 14th Street.  But that spot in between just happened to be a low-demand section.  Is that the way to put it?

(Sam Stephenson):  Low demand?

Yeah, low demand.  No one wanted to rent there.  So, wholesale florists wanted space, and they probably found it.  There were wholesale florists in all of these buildings along that side of 28th.  Even in that big building, they occupied the downstairs floor, a wholesale operator.  And then they were in the big building over here.  There were wholesalers in this one, going down a little bit, you know.”

“I remember there were a lot of wholesalers.  They were interesting people in the flower business at that time.  I think back, and lots of them were pretty capable individuals, the employees, the people that were employees in houses and things.  They probably worked because it was – you know that was during the Depression times and everything else, and work was hard to find.  But there were some very bright capable people in this business.”

Some interesting items from Bill's Flower Market. Photo by Dan Partridge

Some interesting items from Bill's Flower Market. Photo by Dan Partridge

We don’t have a transcribed interview from the folks at Bill’s Flower Market (pictured above) but they’ve been very helpful to the Jazz Loft Project and they run a wonderful business. Also, check out a brief history of their store and a cool photograph from 1946, also on their website.

It was a pleasure to meet each of these people who work in New York’s flower district. And profound to hear some of their history and stories. Do check out the Scouting New York blog and pay a visit to these flower sellers’ websites, and especially to their stores if you’re in the market.

-Dan Partridge

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