Maybe you wander around and see what looks good that day. Perhaps you go with a set shopping list or even have relationships with certain farmers. Everyone who shops the Union Square Greenmarket has a slightly different approach.
Union Square Greenmarket is eponymous with an integrated urban farmers market. The market was created by Barry Benepe and Bob Lewis in 1976. At the time, Benepe had a rich history working with farmers. Together with planner Bob Lewis, they aimed to help both the struggling local farmers and the equally challenged city residents. The union between the city and farmers was both natural and necessary.
In the 1970s, Union Square and its surrounding area was decidedly not the bustling cultural melting pot and tourist destination it is today. The park was a haven for drug dealers. When I visited Oak Grove Plantation this summer, Ted Blew recounted hearing gun shots every morning and watching the police sit in their cars and wait.
In 1975, Benepe and Lewis traveled the surrounding New Jersey and New York counties, recruiting farmers for the inaugural market. They found 12 farms willing to drive to Manhattan and sell their produce. The markets’ first day was a resounding success: Stokes Farm reports that they sold out within hours. In hindsight, that first day foreshadowed the positive impact the market continues to have on the New York community and its regional foodshed.
Over time, the market has expanded to its current operation of year round, four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday). It’s a market that city residents depend on, despite the weather or season.
Union Square Greenmarkmarket’s presence helped make the neighborhood safer for residents and visitors. Farmers and customers started to form relationships. Restaurants and farmers started to form partnerships. Danny Meyer intentionally opened his first restaurant, Union Square Café, beside Union Square Market. He wanted to be within walking distance of all that the market could provide.
Each market day has a slightly different feel. In fact, the market feels different depending on what time you visit! In the early morning, no matter the day, the Greenmarket is full of focused shoppers, armed with shopping lists and recipe ideas, often excited not only for the pick of the products but a quick chat with a favorite farmer. The early morning is also when restaurants, sometimes the chefs themselves, visit the market, picking up pre-ordered food or buying what looks particularly delicious that day as inspiration for their menu.
During the weekday, the lunch hour results in a flurry of workers shopping and eating while on their break. The market tends to slow down slightly in the afternoon before one last burst of energy at the end of the day. Saturdays at Union Square Greenmarket mean that the farmers are busy the entire day. The market atmosphere is festive and cramped (and certainly not for those who get squeamish around crowds. If you’re trying to simply shop, it can be hard to cut around the tourists and those transecting the Square to reach their final destination.
When all four days are combined, Union Square hosts over 120 different farmers and artisans. The market is the definition of one-stop shopping: seasonal fruits and vegetables, heirloom varieties, heirloom and pasture raised meats, flowers, jams, honey, eggs, plants, cider, milk.
If you have time, make sure you walk the entire market before making a purchase (unless it’s early in the heirloom tomato season or its ramp season—then go for it!). It’s important to investigate what each farmer to learn what looks best that day.
A good day at Union Square Market can translate to a good day in general. When I visit Union Square, I usually stumble across an unexpected item, either for a snack or a change in direction for my planed dinner.
Remember—enjoy the vibe, enjoy the hustle, but also take the time to explore, duck into new farm tents, and most importantly talk to the vendors. Many have risen at 3 am to load their trucks, and most stick around until 6 pm. Take a moment to tell a farmer what you made with their ingredient or how sweet, tart, flavorful, or delicious an ingredient tasted.
For up to the minute updates, follow the Union Square Twitter account. They’re proactive about responding to specific questions and tweeting about any pertinent farmer updates.
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