Manhattan —

The few customers who still shop at La Marqueta always ask “How much?” But the merchants at the storied East Harlem market have just one question on their minds these days: “When?”

For years, promises of a major overhaul and expansion have swirled around the nearly defunct market, once a bustling center of activity in El Barrio. Behind a glass case in the middle of the city-owned market’s last functioning building are newspaper clippings from 2003, touting grand renovation plans. The 70-year-old market’s rebirth had been set for this past summer. But work has yet to start, and now mid-2008 is the latest target completion date. “These people promise and promise and they don’t do anything,” butcher Jose Cintron said angrily. “I’ve been waiting 30 years.”

Dearth of Customers

Cintron, of Jose’s Meats, is one of a handful of remaining vendors in the market, which hasn’t seen any major renovations since a fire three decades ago. The number of customers has dwindled since — along with the ranks of merchants.

Wearing a hat that says “Captain,” Ben Lifshultz, 87, has been selling bacalao (dried cod fish) for nearly 60 years in La Marqueta. “We were jammed,” said Lifshultz, recalling the market’s glory days. “On a Saturday you would have to fight your way to get in here.” Now, the only real noise is the rumble of the trains above or the crackling sounds coming from Lifshultz’s radio. There are no customers fighting to get in the market. But the East Harlem Business Capital Corporation is promising the public — and merchants — that better days are ahead.

“It’s a healthy skepticism, but it’s wrong,” said Sally Hernandez-Pinero, who is overseeing the renovation plan for the EHBCC. Hernandez-Pinero, a former deputy mayor, cites the millions the EHBCC has raised as proof the project, mired in doubt, will materialize. City Councilmember Melissa Mark Viverito (D-Manhattan) has obtained $1 million for the renovation. There’s $2 million from the city’s Economic Development Corp., and $2 million from the New Market tax credit fund. An additional $4 million is pending from the Upper Manhattan Development Zone. But the project will still need another $5 million before ground can be broken.

In the meantime, signs inside La Marqueta tell prospective vendors there are no applications available for space. “There’s no point in getting people excited if there’s nothing there,” said Hernandez-Pinero. “But we welcome people to call and leave information.” EHBCC officials they already have a waiting list of about 50.

Health Concerns

The redevelopment plans for La Marqueta come at a crucial time for East Harlem, a neighborhood rife with bodegas and fast-food joints — as well as some of the highest rates of diabetes, asthma and obesity in the city. Hernandez-Pinero said part of the redevelopment plan calls for leasing space to merchants offering healthful food choices, such as fresh meats and organic vegetables.

The EHBCC plans to break ground by November 2007, and finish the project by summer, 2008. “A lot of people, they miss this place,” said Marcio Martinez, who has been shopping at La Marqueta since he arrived in New York from his native Guatemala in 1976. “We need this, they should do something about it.” But whether longtime merchants will be around the dawning of what’s being billed as a new era for the market is unclear.

Maria Diaz, who has been working in La Marqueta since 1998 selling Puerto Rican souvenirs, said she would wait another year before deciding whether to move on. “The poor live on hope,” she said wistfully.