After a year-long hiatus, the popular Smorgasburg food festival returns to Williamsburg on June 26. The event’s return is an inspiring sign of the city’s COVID-19 recovery, yet the news does not come without its fair share of controversy.
Since it launched in 2011, Smorgasburg has grown into the largest open-air food market in the entire country, attracting New Yorkers from across the five boroughs and tourists from throughout the U.S. and world.
The festival’s large crowds were a nonstarter last year during the pandemic, yet the Smorgasburg team is excited to be bringing back the event this year and possibly even attracting new patrons.
“Reopening Smorgasburg feels like a culmination of months of collective action, by us and our vendors, but also by all New Yorkers to get the city back to this point where we can feel comfortable holding an event with so many people,” said Smorgasburg co-founder Eric Demby. “It feels so good to be moving in a positive direction after all the loss and grief and anxiety and boredom.”
Demby said that many of the longtime vendors at Smorgasburg won’t be there for the reopening as COVID-19 forced them to close permanently.
“We encourage anyone who’s interested to apply through our website,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity to launch your business during a busy summer at the markets. We are especially seeking folks of color and from the LGBTQ+ community, but of course all are welcome.”
In addition to COVID-19, Smorgasburg has had to contend with the redesign of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, the waterfront site where the festival is held.
Throughout the pandemic, the state Parks Department has struggled to compromise with community activists on a design for the park that properly honors its namesake, a notable LGBTQ+ activist and 1969 Stonewall Uprising leader.
Some activists have suggested adding more greenspace to the park, a proposition that might affect the concrete slabs where Smorgasburg vendors set up. During a series of public hearings, multiple Smorgasburg vendors expressed their concerns about the proposition of changing the festival’s location.
“The size of platform B [one of the concrete slabs currently in the park] is very important to Smorgasburg,” argued Susan Povich, founder and owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound, at a public hearing last month. “Especially in the post-COVID world, if we shrink the size of platform B we will have to shrink the number of vendors at Smorgasburg.”
Charles Carlotti, a wood-fire pizza vendor at Smorgasburg, expressed a similar sentiment.
“The way the market is set up, all the vendors have an equal opportunity to make money,” he explained. “The other spots where we do Smorgasburg don’t even come close to comparing to that spot.”
In addition to its famous Williamsburg festival, Smorgasburg organizes events in DUMBO, Chelsea, and the Lower East Side. In 2016, Smorgasburg also launched a weekly summer market in Los Angeles, much like the one in Williamsburg.
Photos courtesy of Smorgasburg.