Few vendors remain in historic market

Jose Cintron waters plants when he is not serving customers in his stall at East Harlem's La Marqueta. Cintron, 62, has worked at the historic Puerto Rican marketplace for 45 years and is looking forward to retirement next spring. Photo by Nick DeSantis

It’s hard to tell that Jose Cintron butchers meat for a living. A severed pig’s head keeps watch on customers from the bottom of his glass cooler, but Cintron’s pristine apron bears no bloodstains, no evidence of the slaughter.

These days, Cintron doesn’t carve as much pork as he used to. He doesn’t even have enough customers to keep his hands dirty.

Cintron is part of a small group of vendors at La Marqueta, the historic Puerto Rican marketplace on Park Avenue in East Harlem. In the 1950s and 60s, Puerto Rican families from all five boroughs flocked to La Marqueta to buy specialty foods from hundreds of stalls.

But in the 70s, economic decline began to drive vendors out of the neighborhood. The Puerto Rican population dwindled and was replaced by a flood of Mexican immigrants unfamiliar with the market’s traditions. A series of fires hastened its demise, and it was eventually reduced to a shell of its former self.

Over the last 20 years, numerous attempts to revive the space have failed. The newest revitalization plan, a kitchen incubator program for immigrant women run by a Brooklyn nonprofit, will launch later this fall.

For now, only five vendors occupy the building during the week, and the prosperity and Puerto Rican heritage of La Marqueta have nearly vanished.

Cintron, 62, remembers the good days of La Marqueta fondly. He began working for his uncle at the market when he was 17. During those busy times, vendors sold everything from dried beans and bananas to clothing and spices.

Everyone at La Marqueta turned a profit, including visitors whose business interests were less than legitimate.

“In those days, even the crooks made money,” he chuckled, his eyes lighting up from behind his glasses. “The pickpockets had more to choose from.”

Today, would-be thieves have few pockets to pick. Most of the stalls are empty and closed off by iron gates. The few open stalls are lined with plastic to keep dust out.

Cintron hawks every cut of pork, from large shoulders to pig tails cured in buckets. Another vendor sells Puerto Rican flags and religious items. Benny, the oldest vendor, keeps his stall stocked with bacalao — salted and dried cod.

Throughout the day, a handful of customers wander into Cintron’s store. Most of them are regular clients who pay their bills on a monthly tab.

“Normal customers who come here to buy, I get only three or four of those a day,” he said, shaking his head and running a hand over his stubbly gray beard.

Henry Calderon, president of the East Harlem Chamber of Commerce, isn’t surprised by the lack of customers. The city’s Mexican population nearly quadrupled in the 1990s, according to the New York City Department of City Planning. Many of those Mexican immigrants settled in East Harlem, and Calderon said they were unfamiliar with La Marqueta’s rich history.

“A majority of the people who live here now weren’t here 30 years ago,” he said. “The Puerto Rican grandmother will remember, but the Mexican grandmother won’t because she didn’t live it.”

The vendors of La Marqueta make their own entertainment when customers aren’t around. Inside the market, a radio blared Latin music. Behind Cintron’s counter, a TV set flickered mutely on an episode of “Family Feud.” His assistant poured a beer into Styrofoam cups to share with a customer while he barked orders at a construction crew.

The good times ended when Puerto Rican immigrants began to leave the neighborhood, Cintron said. The multi-ethnic corner stores dotting the streets now stock many of the staples that used to be available only inside the market, rendering it unnecessary for everyday shopping.

But Cintron noted that the fresh food sold at those bodegas is too pricey for East Harlem residents. He lamented that La Marqueta is no longer a source of inexpensive, fresh food in a neighborhood devoid of healthy options.

“This neighborhood, for poor people, it’s too expensive,” he complained, his chin jutting out over the top of the butcher counter. “Bacon used to be 79 cents; now it’s five dollars.”

If Cintron is bothered by the slow business, he doesn’t show it. He jokes with his clients, and his sly grin transforms the gaze of a businessman looking forward to retirement. Next spring, he’ll hand the business off to his son, just as his uncle gave him control of the business when he retired.

Cintron accepts the reality of the present-day Marqueta, but is disappointed that many young neighborhood residents aren’t interested in the market’s culinary and cultural history.

“Most of the older people, they used to buy chitlins and old-fashioned stuff,” he said. “Kids now, they go to McDonald’s, Burger King, pizza. They’re not going to come here and buy a steak.”

The fast food restaurants that draw Cintron’s customers away are prominent signs of a neighborhood in transition. In July, the East River Plaza mall opened on the edge of 116th Street, bringing big-box stores to the neighborhood. The new development attracts foot traffic, but few of those visitors are aware of the old traditions that made La Marqueta the beating heart of El Barrio.

“A lot of the stuff that I grew up with has been forgotten, like going out shopping with your whole family,” said Luis Garcia, 41, a lifelong East Harlem resident and Marqueta shopper who visits several times a week.

A wireless headset flashed in his ear as he reminisced about the old-world appeal of the market, where his mother bought holiday foods for his family.

“Now people go to the Best Buy and the Costco,” he said.

Cintron said there are few members of the old generation, like Garcia’s mother, left to shop at La Marqueta. His friends view his butcher business as a relic from a bygone era, and often counsel him to move.

He thinks they’re just jealous.

“People ask me now, what are you still doing over here? Are you making any money?” he said defiantly. “They can’t tell me how to run my business. Really, everybody’s envious of me because I’m one of the only ones left.”

He hopes the incoming kitchen incubator project will draw vendors and customers to a space that still holds name recognition in the neighborhood. When the city signed a deal to create the new kitchen incubator, Cintron’s rent dropped to $300 per month from $1,300 per month.

At that price, Cintron may not be so eager to retire.

“My son says, ‘Pop, when are you leaving?’” he said with a grin. “I tell him, ‘Soon — don’t worry about it.’”