I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes it pays to look like a tourist. Had I not spent one particular Subway journey staring blankly at my map, it’s likely I wouldn’t have got chatting to my neighbour who suggested checking out one of the city’s best-kept secrets, New York’s disappearing Flower District in Midtown Manhattan.
This lush century-old oasis in Chelsea at 28th Street and Sixth Avenue is where the majority of New York’s wholesale florists – the middlemen between the growers and Manhattan’s retailers – still do business. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot plants, hanging baskets, trees, branches, vases and garden objects crowding the pavements.
The Flower District began life at a ferry dock on East 34th Street “when flower pushcarts and shops, many owned by immigrants from Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and especially Greece, emerged to cater to rising demand”, according to this NY Times article, before they relocated to 28th street to be closer to Manhattan’s more wealthy customers – by 1977 more flowers were being sold in NYC than anywhere else in the world other than Amsterdam!
Today, the number of sellers has whittled down over the years by soaring real estate prices and condominium encroachment, so as you walk slowly along, it’s nice to imagine the area in its heyday, when family businesses transformed the storefronts into lush mini urban jungles; retailers coming from as far out as Pennsylavia and Massachusetts bartering over bales of locally grown pink magnolias and freshly cut chrysanthemums.
There are still some good runs left on the pavements, although there are so many shops to duck inside that your tour of the Flower District shouldn’t end on the streets. I wander into Tropical Plants & Orchids Inc and can’t believe my eyes. Row upon row of brighly coloured, fragrant and delicate orchids and a maze-like jungle of tropical foliage filling the shop as far back as the eye can see…
Back on 28th, look up and you’ll still see many of the original shop signs and facades, like Superior Flowers open since 1930 and the Associated Cut Flower Co Inc., a wholesale business open for 50 years. These shops are an ode to these historic jungles of Midtown Manhattan, which although might be slowly disappearing, can still transport the visitor into a completely different world.
Traveller tip: I visited around 12 midday, but they say the best time to visit is around 5am when the morning deliveries are made.