When you type “The Market Line” into Google, the brief description reads: “Sprawling hub for prepared plates & grocery goods celebrating the Lower East Side.” Photos of brightly colored signs, fresh produce and meats, bustling people, and beautifully decorated stands overwhelm you. If you’re a little anxious like me, hustle and bustle can be intimidating to attack alone. So, I grabbed my roommate and we made our way down there on January 17th, 2021 — nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ron Capistrano, Southeast Market Line, New York. Photo: Piboon Otto
The Essex Market — the floor above the Market Line — wasn’t too hectic when I arrived a little after 12:00 PM but seeing people waiting in lines and shopping led me to believe that the basement would be just as busy. My friend and I were shocked to find ourselves two of the Market Line’s five patrons.
“Now it’s just [us] trying to get back in the groove,” store manager of Southeast’s Market Line pop-up shop Ron Capistrano tells me, “It’s still hard since our customer base declined, people moved out of the city. We’re just trying to do what we need to do, but it’s still unclear what’s next.”
Owners of Taqueria Nixtamal. Photo: Piboon Otto
Owners of Taqueria Nixtamal. Photo: Piboon Otto
A little later, the owner and manager of Tortilleria Nixtamal Fernando guide us through the closed-off area of the basement. “This is the part of the market that isn’t opened to the public. All these businesses are shut down now. And because it’s tight [up front], and they don’t want people down here, most of these businesses aren’t even open anyway.” The effects of the pandemic are obvious at the Market Line. The little basement that is open to the public accommodates as many temporary stalls as it can, ensuring that businesses like Southeast, Slice Joint, Essex Pearl, and more can serve to-go options for their customers. Unfortunately, the space is not large enough to provide all the Market Line businesses a temporary stall. Of the twenty-six Market Line vendors, only thirteen are open and serving. Fernando gestures to the empty seating area of the Grand Delancey, his voice recounting memories of better, pre-pandemic days. “When we were open, you could sit down and order anything from the Market you wanted.”
Despite the pandemic’s tribulations, there is a prevailing camaraderie among those who dedicate their time to the businesses of the Market Line. “We’re right now collaborating on a concept for the end of the month. We promote one of our vendors, and then we try to make it an event. This is put together by us,” Fernando gestures around himself, metaphorically including the shops at the Market Line involved with the initiative, “Essex Pearl, and Moon Man.”
Slice Joint’s owner/manager Rachel Marie further describes some of the many collaborative moments between the various businesses, “If I have to go make a pizza, one of these guys cover my stall. If he has to go slice some meat, I’ll cover his stall. We have definitely had to collaborate and work together to make it work this way. When we were doing outside dining with Grand Delancey, they had a menu we [all] had to collaborate on. So we were all trying to make as many of the brands’ representatives of The Market Line although not all the stores were open.”
Southeast Market Line, New York. Photo: Piboon Otto
Before I left, I got the chance to look out into both the opened and closed sections of the basement while climbing the stairs out into the Essex Market’s main floor. In one corner, you see Slice Joint, hot pizzas enticing even from above. Southeast’s tables are stocked with delicious, brightly packaged snacks and ramen. Although closed for in-person dining or take-out, Nixtamal has an online marketplace for its many varieties of tortillas and salsas. You can even order their dishes through EatNom. If you have the time, I certainly recommend spending a couple of hours of your morning or early afternoon here — I urge you to support the open vendors.
The Market Line represents what food culture means in New York: locality and community. In speaking to Ron, Fernando, and Rachel, it became clear that many of these small businesses were left behind by the federal government — grants, aid, and any extra money was allocated by how many years a business was open and how powerful they might be. This presented a grim reality for the new, local businesses at the Market Line: all they really had was each other and the New Yorkers that supported them. During the worst of the pandemic, these restaurants were there to encourage and highlight one another. Even now, as we move forward, their sense of community remains unchanged. These businesses exist for the benefit of their localities. These restaurants are not national powerhouses, demanding profit over the people they serve — they are necessary and vital extensions of people that make up the Lower East Side and New York City. Even empty, I could envision the life, culture, and people that made The Market Line truly a one-of-a-kind NYC experience.