La Marqueta, Once a Thriving Harlem Hub, Struggles to Attract a Crowd

Tabatha Lozano-Raimundi, 44, worked in the cramped market stall she had transformed into a pink-walled bakery, molding sugar into teacups that she would carefully place on a cake. A tight deadline loomed, but the market was nearly empty. She did not have to worry about being interrupted.
Her specialty is elaborately crafted cakes that take the form of butterflies, cartoon characters or a pair of lips painted blood red. Customers pay hundreds of dollars for them. Because of that, her bakery, Sprinkle Splash Bakery, doesn’t rely on foot traffic. Still, she decided before she opened it just over a year ago that she wanted to work in La Marqueta, an East Harlem marketplace, in a building wedged under the Metro-North line.
Mrs. Lozano-Raimundi knows that the market may not look like much. But she has memories of vibrant days when La Marqueta spanned several blocks. It is where her mother brought her to buy her first communion dress.
She believes that La Marqueta is ready for a revival, and that her business will be part of it.
“It feels like home when I’m here,” she said.
In another stall, Aurelia Velez, 75, runs a miniature grocery store offering bags of sugar and cans of tomato sauce. It looks like they have been sitting on the shelf for a while. Her best seller is bacalao, which is dried and salted codfish. Without it, she would struggle to pay rent.
Ms. Velez remembers the good times. Aisles were crowded, and people could buy fresh meats, fish, vegetables or anything else needed to prepare a meal. But she figures the good times are history.
“Those years,” she said, “will never come back.”

La Marqueta, a marketplace on Park Avenue at East 115th Street. Gabriella Angotti-Jones/NYT Institute

East Harlem’s Struggling ‘Statue of Liberty’

The Park Avenue Retail Market, which would become La Marqueta, opened in 1936, spanning five buildings from 111th Street to 116th Street. It once teemed with dozens of vendors and hordes of customers, many from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They bought everything from rice, beans and coffee to sandwiches and slices of pizza.

Taína Traverso, who often stops in during art tours she gives of East Harlem, said she would buy blouses for 99 cents or come away with bags filled with food for under $10. The place was a landmark, she said — “our Statue of Liberty.”
“Everybody remembers the fish smell,” Ms. Traverso said. “If you smell the fish, you know you were in La Marqueta.”  

Today, the market has been whittled down to a single building on Park Avenue at East 115th Street. People in the neighborhood can get their fresh meat and produce at supermarkets, or housewares at stores like Costco.
Over the years, officials have promised millions of dollars to repair and revitalize the market, including $3 million pledged by the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, in 2014 to go toward updating the building. Some of the money will be spent this summer, Brooke Goren, a New York City Economic Development Corporation spokeswoman, wrote in an email.  
The building will get new windows, better insulation and glass doors that will open onto the street. City officials have previously boasted of its “fully equipped kitchen facilities,” deeply discounted rents and subsidized utilities.
“These improvements will greatly expand our capacity to engage with the local community and hopefully drive more foot traffic to our retail vendors,” Ms. Goren said.

Tabatha Lozano-Raimundi opens up the shop at La Marqueta in East Harlem. She works every week with only a day off. Maria Alejandra Cardona/NYT Institute

Much More Than a Market
It was a Friday afternoon, and Mrs. Lozano-Raimundi settled in with an iced coffee, bracing for a long night. The cake with the teacups needed to be ready by the next day.
A commotion outside caught her attention, and she rushed toward it. Girls were fighting on the sidewalk, and one of them pulled out a knife before the police arrived.

The scuffle was certainly not the first Mrs. Lozano-Raimundi had seen.
Her roots in East Harlem run deep. It is where she met her husband and raised her two daughters. She not only believes that the neighborhood can support the market; she also believes that the neighborhood needs it.
The rent, with utilities, is about $700 a month. Selling a single specialty cake, she said, could cover it. But the low cost was not the only reason Mrs. Lozano-Raimundi, who started the bakery after a career in marketing, wanted to work out of La Marqueta.
She said the location helped her connect with the community around her. She has organized movie nights, plugging her laptop into a projector and handing out free popcorn. She also has plans for an “A+ challenge,” in which neighborhood children can use good grades to enter raffles for desserts.
“It’s so much bigger than the cakes,” she said.  

Tomasita Negron, mother of Tabitha Lozano-Raimundi, is one of the biggest helps for Ms. Lozano. Working a part-time job, the 62-year-old enjoys helping her daughter succeed. Maria Alejandra Cardona/NYT Institute

A clear Saturday afternoon should be a busy time for a market. But at La Marqueta, a couple walked in pushing a stroller and left less than a minute later. Another woman did a lap around the building and took off.

In her shop, Ms. Velez recalled when people used the market like a grocery store and department store rolled into one. Parking was impossible. At the end of the day, security guards had to turn people away.

The store was her husband’s idea, but since his death, it has been hers to manage. Ms. Velez said she kept at it because she would rather not be at home. But the years and the work have caught up to her.
“I’m tired,” she said, sweeping while still sitting in her chair. “I’m starting to feel it.”
These days, she comes in around 9 a.m. The market closes most days at 6 p.m., but when business is slow — and it often is — she does not bother to stay that late.
“If I can make money that day, I thank God,” Ms. Velez said. “If I don’t make money, I thank God anyway.”
As the day wore on, she stood to pull the bacalao out of the display case and put it away. She wiped down the counter and swept up the salt that had fallen off the fish with a broom nearly as tall as she was.
By now, Ms. Velez had given up on the day. She tugged down the metal gate and shuffled off. It was 2:22 p.m.