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.
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.”
Rosenberg’s grandfather Louie arrived from Poland in the early 1920s. Living in a tenement on the Lower East Side, he eventually got a job in the Chelsea fur district-that is, until he realized he was allergic to fur. Louie crossed the street and sought out a job as a flower runner; he learned Greek to get a leg up in his new profession, supplementing his fluent Yiddish and clunky English.
In 1930, Louie Rosenberg opened his own wholesale shop and began competing with Greek, German, and Irish immigrants to sell fresh-cut flowers. to retailers. This was a time when elegantly dressed men haggled with growers from Long Island. Decades before the jet age, New Yorkers had to make due with hydrangeas and gladiolus from Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island.
Many immigrants work in the flower district these days, though now they largely hail from Mexico. Frankie Mendez, a salesperson at Caribbean Cuts, has made a career out of selling to clients from Christian Louboutin and Barney’s exotic bamboos or purple dancing ladies for catalog and window displays. Mendez was only 12 when he moved to New York from Mexico City. By the time he was 14, he was unloading boxes of flowers in the predawn gloom. Like the elder Rosenberg, he spoke little English, but worked hard to succeed in a physically strenuous environment.
“Everyone here starts from the bottom,” he says.
Now 30, Mendez is a naturalized citizen who has spent more than half his life working on West 28th Street. “I’ve learned so much here,” he says, pausing to tend to a fashionably dressed customer purchasing tropical plants for a photo shoot. “New York is the only one for me,” Mendez says. “If the market moves away, I’ll stay here and continue working with flowers.”
The U.S. flower industry has shifted radically over the past two decades. Page, who has worked in the flower district since 1984, says the industry has always been volatile, ebbing and flowing with the economy. Flowers, after all, are a short-lived luxury that sell well only when people have money to burn.
“Nothing has ever been as bad as the recession,” Page says from an office above his Chelsea shop. “New York has always been about bling. But after the recession hit, there was an inflection point where people suddenly didn’t want to show wealth like they used to. We have struggled to come back from that.”
Florists who depend on individual (rather than corporate) customers were hit hardest. “When the economy went in the toilet in 2008, we lost 40 percent of our business overnight-gone, vanished,” Rosenberg says.
It’s not just those who sell flowers-a network of artists and designers depends on pretty vegetation for a living, too. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their job outlook is expected to decline 6 percent from 2016 to 2026, leaving 3,500 out of work. And it’s not just New York: In 2016, the U.S. Census recorded 13,188 retail florist shops throughout the country. The number reflected a steep decline from the 27,341 shops in 1992, when the industry was still in its prime.
“It’s hard to maintain overhead these days,” says Bill Nikolas, who owns Bill’s Flower Market, a wholesaler-turned-retailer that has been family-owned and -run since 1936. “A lot of people operate at a loss.”
Nevertheless, there are still top event planners with five-figure budgets to decorate weddings and corporate parties, and their wallets are wide open. A $30,000 order of orchids can make all the difference to a wholesaler’s profit margin, while a few $8,000 wedding arrangements per month can keep some florists afloat.
Casper Trap, a Dutch wholesaler who grew up working on flower farms in the Netherlands, owns Dutch Flower Line. He has increased his business-to-business sales and developed a social media presence to draw new clients. Although such strategies have brought him success, he still hopes to leave the confines of West 28th Street.
“New York is the biggest money prize, but the flower district is just this little, pathetic street,” he says, pacing between buckets of fresh cut flowers from Colombia, Holland, New Zealand, Ethiopia, and Japan.
The structure of the market has fallen apart, say store-owners. There is no longer a sense of camaraderie in the district when businesses cut corners to stay alive, they say. Wholesalers are selling retail to turn an extra buck, and florists, who traditionally purchased from wholesalers, are buying directly from growers.
Maryanne Finnegan, owner of Foliage Gardens, says wholesalers are also struggling to find workers. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has been targeting the industry, she says, given that the labor-intensive jobs tend to attract immigrants from Central America seeking work.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Finnegan would file agricultural requests to obtain documentation for her employees. “Now they’re American citizens,” she says. “They pay taxes. They’re wonderful people. These are stand-up American success stories. But now I can’t get a single person in.” ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Finnegan says she’s been able to stay afloat, thanks to a niche market: plant rentals. But with her workforce under threat, plus online competition, traffic jams, and Chelsea rents, she fears the district’s days are numbered.
Some optimists suggest that New York’s flower market still has room for growth-should wholesalers decide to leave West 28th Street behind. Gary Page and Casper Trap have struggled for decades to mobilize local shop owners to move to prospective 150,000-square-foot warehouses in Long Island City, Queens, to Manhattan’s Upper East Side or far West Side. All plans have fallen through, reflecting a lack of consensus among shop owners.
“Personally, I knew the market was never going to move,” Nikolas says. “I have an image of my uncle standing out on the corner in 1952, talking about the market moving because of too much traffic. And when my father was down here in the ’30s and ’40s, the joke had always been: ‘Don’t hang your jacket up, the market is moving.'”
He says the current location still has its advantages, noting that the district has become a tourist attraction. Wholesalers, however, say selfie-taking pedestrians disrupt the flow of business. “It becomes like a museum,” Trap says. “They take our attention away from regular customers.”
Sam Rosenberg says he’ll never leave Chelsea. “I’ve been here since I was in diapers,” he says, arranging a bouquet of white roses and baby’s breath for a longtime customer. “Now, I’m the oldest person in this market. We’re not leaving, we’re keeping it in the family.”