One of America's Oldest and Largest Public Markets
By Jamie A. Seba and Valerie Zehl
It’s one of a rare and dying breed. And it’s right here, at 999 Broadway. Broadway Market’s humble appearance belies its status as one of America’s largest and oldest public markets. Eavesdrop on shoppers’ conversations, and discover that they’re not only East Side residents or visitors from nearby suburbs. They’ve come here from Florida, from Michiganthey’ve come to see family, but couldn’t resist dropping by the Market because there’s just nowhere else quite like it. “I left the Buffalo area and whatever Polish roots I had over 23 years ago,” says Denise Vause of Tampa. “Over those years, I’ve lost touch with most of the Polish traditions that I remember so fondly from my childhood. Coming here is comparable to a pilgrimage for me.”
The Market was carved into the growing city more than a century ago, a taste of the Old Country offered to Polish immigrants pouring into the Broadway-Fillmore area. Today the Market honors its roots, but echoes the diversity around itand that makes it better than ever.
Culinary traditions of many cultures, from kiczka to croissants, scent the air. The air that was once filled with the sounds of Eastern European dialects now percolates with Spanish, Lao, Vietnamese, and a host of other languagesalthough shoppers are still apt to be greeted with a pleasant “Panni, how can I help you?” from a smiling clerk who may well have hailed from a village outside of Krakow or Minsk.
Glass-front counters would have once held only the markings of a fine Polish meal: pierogi, galumbki, kapusta, beet-tinged horseradish that can open the sinuses at 30 paces and, of course, that staple of the Polish diet, kielbasa. Now, though, some 50 independent merchants also offer chitterlings, borsht, jalapenos, chicken feet, ravioli, yellow rice, black beans, egg rolls, and other ethnic specialities. Fresh produce like bok choy rests on countertops next to huge bags of potatoes and onions, turnips, okra, and mammoth dill pickles. It’s all here. And more.
Including desserts. The Broadway Market is a dieter’s nightmare, offering up rich poppy seed breads, sugar-powdered chrusciki, baklava, creamy cannoli, dark pecan and sweet potato pies, and cheesecakes so heavy they could sink a battleshipthese busy stands are the envy of the suburbs. Irresistible sights and aromas beckon from other cornershomemade specialty chocolates, dark and rich, and brightly wrapped imported confections with jellies hidden inside.
Here, too, are wood carvings and nesting Russian dolls, books, and CDs, handmade crafts, t-shirts, and rude bumper stickers. Prices tend to be far lower at the Market than they are in other venues. The biggest problem with shopping here, many find, is that they forget to bring their wheelbarrows.
And then there’s the tiny but typically jam-packed luncheonette within the Market, a place snatched whole from the early 1960s. Vinyl stools flank a clean but well-used counter. Behind it, fly waitresses and a cook who can’t possibly move any faster, serve up dishes heaped with buttery mashed potatoes and steaming kielbasa, and bowls of dark czarnina bobbing with bits of raisin and duck meat. Strangers on adjacent stools or in neighboring booths nod and chat, joined by the common bond that drew them to a place where a full Polish feast can be had for under five dollars.
The Market, which is owned by the City of Buffalo but leased to and managed by the nonprofit Broadway Market Management Corp., also plays host to concerts for the winter holidays. It showcases other special events throughout the year as funds permit, says Executive Director Rod Hensel, who has occupied his position there “for the last three Easterswe measure time in Easters around here.” Small wonder. In the week before that holiday, some one-half million people bustle through the Broadway Market. This year, they’ll be treated to the Easter Bunny as well as wandering performers, but there won’t be a formal show. “The crowds are just too big now,” Hansel says.
Ruth Smolen lives in the suburbs but is drawn to the Market at least once a year. “I like to go now at Eastertime for the Polish hams, butter lambs, and breadsand to see the girls all dressed up in their Polish costumes,” she said.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who ask if we’re really open at other times of the year,” says Hensel with a laugh. “But, in fact, we’ve had a big increase in traffic over the last several years.” Over the last few years the Market stepped up its marketing and community outreach in an effort to draw more visitors. As a result, 1998 marked the site’s third straight year of operating with a profit and a 25 percent tenant increase. They even get busloads of visitors from distant towns, says Hensel.
Not that the Market ever lacked for merchants or shoppers. In the late 1800s, Buffalo was awash in waves of immigrants who had taken refuge here from Europe. The city of Buffalo provided $45,000 to open a market that would accommodate the needs of those in the areaand the now-famous landmark was born. So, too, were many small immigrant-owned businesses. Products like Wardynski’s meats, Weber’s mustard, and Al Cohen’s New York rye bread got their starts here, says Hensel. What were once tiny mom-and-pop operations have since found fame and fortune far beyond the City of Good Neighbors.
Newcomers felt comfortable in an environment that reminded them so much of similar bazaars they had left behind. The wooden wagons that held many merchants’ wares have been immortalized as part of the Market’s logo.
Soon the Broadway Market was drawing immigrants from miles around, as well as the more adventuresome of long-standing Americans who wanted a glimpse at what may have topped their forebears’ tables. With its spiraling popularity and success, the Broadway Market needed to grow. Soon it expanded to cover the entire block between Gibson and Lombard, transforming the area into the second-largest business section of its time in Buffalo.
At the turn of the century, the original Market building burned down and was replaced by a more efficient structure with double the space. For most of its years there was an open-air component to the Market as well, says Hensel. And that’s what sticks in Ruth Smolen’s mind. “It was such a big deal to visit the market back in the ‘30s when I was a girl. Outside, they used to kill the chickens and ducks for you, or they’d tie the chickens up by their feet and you could take them home like that,” she remembers.
Today’s Broadway Market building was constructed in 1956 and offers two tiers of shops and 1,000 free parking spaces in a double-decker ramp. A multi-million dollar renovation project in the mid-80s improved lighting and access. Plansand fundingare in the works to continue the expansion and renovation of the site.
But no matter how modern it looks, the Market intents to uphold its motto of Old-Fashioned Food and Fun. “One of the reasons I was attracted to the Market was that it reminded me of some of the old neighborhood delicatessens that I grew up with in New York City,” says Jennifer Jaegers of Grand Island.
Despite its tradition-rich history and throngs of loyal customers, the Market faces its share of challenges. In 1997, Tops Market executives announced that they would close their store in the Market. Smaller vendors cringed from that blow, since the presence of a large grocery store drew many customers with its promise of one-stop shopping in the middle of an ethnic paradise. But salvation was found when the St. Louis-based Save-A-Lot chain signed a 20-year lease to occupy the vacant spot.
In response to some shoppers’ concerns about crime in the area, Hensel says crime is not nearly as pervasive as it’s reputed to be. He adds, “We put in a new surveillance system, and we prosecute very aggressively.”
Those who consider the Market a historical site as well as a shopping mecca, will find the “Heritage Exhibit” of interest. Through the efforts of volunteers who are gathering documents, artifacts, and memories, the history will be preserved. Anyone interested in contributing memorabilia can call the business office at 893-0705.
To enhance the aura of history come alive within its walls, the Market recently introduced a Nickelodeon player piano. Modeled after the old-fashioned player pianos from the 1920s, this version offers an added twist. The Pianomation Reproducing System places musical information on a specially designed compact disk. This information controls the piano keys, tambourine, drum, castanets, triangle, and wooden block. This unique innovation, like the Market itself, combines modern-day achievements with old-fashioned fun. How will the Market enter the new millennium? “We’d like to revive the outdoor farmers’ market,” says Hensel. “And we’re trying to bring the Broadway Market back to its original purpose, to give people a chance to start their own business.” Shoppers can visit other family-owned and operated businesses, including butcher shops, poultry stands, candy shops, and delis, that are comparable to successful businesses in the earlier days. An outreach to area farmers and producers of agricultural products is already underway. “Our goal is to match the needs of the rural producers to those of the urban consumers,” he says.
To accommodate the changing times and the needs of shoppers, the Market now offers many services and specialty shops, including banks, opticians, watch repair services, and health food providers. It recently introduced a new coffee bar, where visitors can take a break from a busy day of shopping or just relax with friends.
But despite its updates and changes, the Broadway Market is committed to maintaining its Old World style. Just as it was 110 years ago, the Market remains the perfect place to visit another world, but with one big improvement: now shoppers can sample several worlds at once and leave much richer for the experience.
The Broadway Market is open MTh., 8 a.m.5 p.m., F, 8 a.m.6 p.m., and Sat., 7 a.m.5 p.m.
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