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CD 18: Terminal Eyes New Beginning

Brooklyn -

Mangoes and codfish.

Jay Nespoli knows what his customers want.  The Italian-American Canarsie native has worked at the Brooklyn Terminal Market for a quarter century.  A&J Wholesale Foods, where Nespoli stocks the shelves, was once an Italian specialty market that sold mozzarella and salami to the area’s Italian residents. Now it caters to the more recently arrived Caribbean and African populations.

On a recent Monday afternoon, a woman walked into A&J and set a case of mangoes on the counter.  “I’m just going to grab some codfish,” she said in a lilting Haitian accent.  Nespoli grinned, “See, I told you.  Mangoes and codfish.”

Big Changes

Brooklyn Terminal Market has occupied 15.5 acres of city-owned land in Canarsie for the last 67 years.  Predominantly Italian and Jewish vendors have given way in recent years to Dominican, Korean, and Guyanese merchants, reflecting changes in the neighboring population.

But the latest change isn’t personal – it’s business.  The vendors, old and new, are coming together in an attempt to buy the land they currently lease from the city to ensure the market survives.

The impending arrival of a BJ’s Wholesale Club and shopping center across the street from the market spurred the formation of the merchants’ co-op.  Vendors hope to attract new retail shoppers by renovating the market.

Vendors also worry that the city may decide the land can be put to better use without the market.  The city shut the Bronx Terminal Market in 2005 and sold the land to a private developer.  Outlets for the national chains Target, Best Buy and Home Depot are under construction in the South Bronx where local merchants once operated.

The Brooklyn Terminal Market is a collection of open-air warehouses that is home to 31 vendors operating both wholesale and retail businesses.  The 100 storefronts are filled with a world of cultural juxtapositions – where Christmas trees, watermelons and wine grapes are sold side-by-side and where Korean wholesalers operate stores with Italian and Jewish names while selling West Indian foods, spices and produce.

Not a Great ‘Welcome’

But if the market’s cultural mélange is interesting, the aesthetics aren’t likely to draw the foodie crowd.  Eighteen-wheelers idle outside the high, barbed-wire-topped fences.  The buildings are dingy gray, low-slung and poorly lit.  The “welcome” sign is illegible, its white lettering lifted and shriveled from the black background, worn by sun and time.

“It looks like a jail. Looks like a prison. Like, don’t go there,” said Charles Ciraolo, the third-generation owner of Whitey’s Produce.  “We need to change that look.”

Because the market occupies city-owned land, the tenants cannot make needed renovations.  Forming a co-op could change that.  Negotiations between the vendors’ association and the city are underway.

Up for discussion are provisions for maintaining the property, sewage and lighting and renovations to the buildings.

“We signed the lease with the option to buy,” said Ciraolo, who is also the president of the vendors association. “We test drove for 37 years and now we’ve decided to buy it.”

The vendors see hope in the success stories of other markets in the city.

The Chelsea Market made a name for itself via constant plugs on the Food Network, whose offices are in the same building.  The Essex Street Market lures hipsters for brunch at the market’s restaurant.  Hunts Point, which competes directly with the Brooklyn Terminal Market for wholesale business, sets itself apart as more of a night market.

“We open early, at 4 a.m., because people like to shop early so they can get to their [own] store,” said Ciraolo.

Hunts Point caters more to chain store and big accounts.  At the Brooklyn Terminal Market, the primary customers are local delis and small restaurants.

Local Customer Base

“That’s what we focus on – this community,” said Ciraolo.  “I’ll tell you the truth: if this market ever disappeared, I don’t know where people would get their food from.”

Vendors at Brooklyn Terminal Market say they are not worried about BJs and Canarsie Plaza moving in next door – just the opposite.

“The impact it will have is it’ll make the value of the market much better because you have more traffic coming through,” said Scott Wiseman, a second-generation owner of Mr. Pickle, which sells varieties of pickles and other pickled products.  Wiseman also is the vice president of the Brooklyn Terminal Market Association.

Traffic is a big issue at the market, which accessible by public transportation. The association has attempted to bring in more business through other methods, but none have made much difference.

“We’ve done the cable ad, newspapers, Daily News, personal flyers to houses. We’ve tried all of that and it’s just very hard to break through,” Ciraolo said.  “Word of mouth is the best way.”