New York’s Flower District Is Dying
Once a $120 million engine, a piece of history is being killed off by competition, construction and ICE. By Riley Griffin More stories by Riley Griffin August 14 , 2018 4 : 00 AM SHARE THIS ARTICLE It’s almost 6 a.m. on West 28th Street, and as the July sun rises over New York, the senses awaken to unexpected smells. Instead of warming asphalt and truck exhaust, there’s the whiff of wisteria, sweet pea, and hyacinth. Hiding gum-stained sidewalks and storefront gates are carnations and roses stacked along the curb. Though busily transforming into a playground for the ultra-wealthy, Manhattan still retains a hint of its working-class past. While the fish market, meatpacking district, and even the diamond and garment districts are all gone, going, or reduced to tiny versions of their former selves, the flower district remains. In fact, this one-block stretch of Chelsea is the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar U.S. floral industry, shuttling flowers to the homes and offices of some of the richest, most powerful people in the world. Among the ever-present construction sites sits a labyrinth of wholesale shops, where peonies and calla lilies spill from buckets, awaiting the discerning eyes of floral artists and decorators. From fashion to finance, the district provides scented backdrops for Fashion Week runway shows, Hamptons clambakes, and billionaire fundraisers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even so, the historic district, like the island of Manhattan, is being overrun by a much more powerful New York industry: real estate.
West 28th Street once boasted more than 65 wholesalers. Now it’s a handful of second- and third-generation shops. As nearby hotels and condos shoot up, skyrocketing rents have forced out wholesalers and florists who can’t keep up, a pattern seen all over the city as bank branches and drugstore chains appear where family-owned stores once served neighborhoods. The flower district has experienced an average 15 percent increase in rent over the last 10 years, according to data compiled by brokerage Citi Habitats. The median monthly rent is currently about $4,000, among the highest in the city, according to an analysis from Bloomberg News. (However, New York did see prices decline in second quarter 2018.) The real estate frenzy has also erased nearby parking lots, which floral customers depended on to transfer loads of flowers out of midtown’s congested streets. Increasing traffic has deterred longtime buyers from even trekking into the city. Even without the fallout from construction and gentrification, the marketplace for expensive flowers has been flooding with new competitors—from Costco to e-commerce sites and even local delis—further squeezing the high-end florists of 28th Street. “There is no viable future for the flower market here,” says Gary Page, owner of G. Page Wholesale Flowers and former president of the now-defunct Flower Market Association, which reported back in 2000 that the district raked in as much as $120 million a year. “The heydays are gone.”
U.S. floriculture retail sales—including flowers, plants, seeds, and potted plants—are valued at $35.2 billion, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Nationally, imports account for approximately 64 percent of fresh-cut flowers sold by dollar volume in the U.S., the Society of American Florists says. Of the fresh-cut flowers exchanging hands in New York’s flower district, the vast majority are imported. In fact, the bouquet you bought at your local deli was likely grown on a mountainside in Colombia, where 78 percent of all U.S. flower imports originate. This relationship is a product of trade policies implemented in the 1990s to curb Colombian drug production by encouraging a legal, alternative crop. After import taxes were lowered, Colombian flowers flourished. American growers, however, paid the price—sales of U.S. roses have dropped 95 percent since 1991, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Additional imported flowers make their way to America from the Netherlands, home to the largest flower market in the world. At Royal FloraHolland in Aalsmeer, flower traders buy and sell $5.2 billion in horticultural products each year at an auction house the size of 182 soccer fields. But even the Dutch have seen growth slow, as cheaper South American flowers flood the market. Where the flowers are from is one thing. Getting them to the buyer while still fresh is quite another. From farm to wholesaler to florist, each stem found in New York’s flower district has traveled farther and faster than most people ever will. Take, for example, a simple red rose. The one you pull out of the plastic wrap in your kitchen was likely grown in Colombia. After its stem has been snipped, it’s put in post-harvest hydration solution and boxed in a refrigerated room. From there, the bundle is transferred to a cooled plane in Bogota and flown to Miami. After passing through customs, the package is received by truck drivers, who shuttle it up the East Coast to New York. From start to finish, the process takes three days.
A photo of Louie Rosenberg (left) with his son, Sam. The elder Rosenberg opened a wholesale shop in 1930 that is now run by Steven Rosenberg, Sam’s son. Photographer: Nathan Bajar for Bloomberg The New York flower district dates back to the late 19th century, when immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Greece, identified an untapped market: providing flowers for department stores, funerals, and even nearby steamships. “The flower market is a shadow of its former self,” says Steven Rosenberg, a third-generation owner of Superior Florist, which was opened by his grandfather in 1930 and then run by his father Sam. “It’s still colorful to walk through, but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be.”