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.

First « 1 2 3 4 » Next