THE NEW YORK TIMES
SAL SADEK stood in the open-air patio of his 15-year-old flower shop, Nature's Foliage and Gardens, a tall, solid man oblivious to the late-winter chill. ''After spring,'' he said, gesturing to the bags of fertilizer and dwarf Alberta spruce trees around him, ''this is going to be history.''
He is right. Work has already begun on the apartment building that will rise on his lot, at West 28th Street and the Avenue of the Americas.
Mr. Sadek is the latest casualty in a long, quiet war of attrition that has transformed New York's once-bustling flower district into a motley and diminishing collection of merchants. Where once there were more than 60 flower wholesalers, there are 32, according to Gary Page, president of the Flower Market Association, a trade group.
Battered by real estate pressures, a tough economy and other adversities, the wholesalers and a number of flower retailers huddle mostly along 28th Street between Seventh Avenue and Broadway amid import-export companies, wholesale accessories outlets and sidewalk pocketbook vendors.
The Flower Market Association has been trying to address the issue. Its members offered to buy an 80,000-square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. Although the deal fell through a few weeks ago, the trade group is eyeing the far western edge of Gansevoort Market; in December the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation received a $30,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund to study that site. The flower merchants are also looking at a building the Durst Organization is constructing at 11th Avenue and 57th Street.
But some of the merchants fear that these relocation efforts will end the way all previous efforts have: in failure.
''They've been moving since I was in diapers,'' said Steven Rosenberg, co-owner of Superior Florists, which was founded in 1930 by his grandfather. ''And they're still here.''
Part of the trouble is that what the merchants seek -- 100,000 to 150,000 square feet of space, ideally in Manhattan, that offers ample parking and affordable rent -- is elusive. But the market also suffers from rifts between wholesalers and retailers, and between owners and renters, that make agreement an elusive goal.
''The first time we talked to the flower market was in 1968,'' said Douglas Durst, a co-president of his family's company. The Dursts then had a site available at 43rd Street and 10th Avenue, but according to Mr. Durst, ''At that point, they just didn't have strong enough leadership in their group to keep a consensus of what to do.'' The site became the Manhattan Plaza Towers.
Now an ominous clock is ticking. Many merchants predict dire consequences if they don't quickly get their act together and move. ''We are only a very short period of time away from leases expiring,'' said Councilwoman Christine Quinn, whose district includes the area, ''and losing the flower market.''
In Pursuit of the Bell Song Tulip
Despite the current troubles in the flower district, many people are still loyal to the old-fashioned, sociable way in which business unfolds there. In their eyes, buying quality flowers is still a matter of touch, smell and trust. One such loyalist is Seth Cohen, a designer for Atlas Floral Decorations in Manhattan and the in-house florist at the Pierre Hotel, which monthly buys 30,000 stems, as they're known in the business.
''They know the quality I'm looking for,'' said Mr. Cohen, who spoke before sunrise on a recent morning as he shopped for flowers to decorate the hotel's lobbies. ''They take care of me.'' Mr. Cohen, who looks a little worn from so many predawn workdays, knows who has the best eyes on the street, and who will, as he says, ''give me a little price.''
The other morning, he started with a quick tour of the market, patting down a purplish-blue sea of hydrangeas, testing them for freshness, and stopping to smell a fat, butter-colored bunch of narcissus. There was a steady traffic of roses on the predawn streets, which were lined with white vans and banks of pussy willows. The sweet, wet smell of commingled flowers permeated everything, and splashes of color -- yellow tulips, bales of pink magnolias -- spilled from the storefronts.
By 6:40, Mr. Cohen had ensconced himself amid the dense banks of flowers at Dutch Flower Line, a wholesaler, for coffee, serious shopping and some banter with Casper Trap, the manager. Soon, Mr. Cohen had swept up 150 Bell Song tulips, distinctive because of their bubble-gum-pink petals edged with lacy white fringe, and 200 sweet peas to go with them.
The tulips went for 90 cents a stem, and though they were just the beginning of Mr. Cohen's purchases the prices didn't seem to be budging much. ''It's a daily fight between me and Seth,'' Mr. Trap joked.
Mr. Cohen, who typically visits the market three mornings a week and spends up to two hours -- ''A lot of it is social,'' he explained -- said he would hate to see the place disappear. ''I would do everything in my head, but I think that would standardize my product more,'' he said. ''I come here and look at these flowers. They speak to me emotionally. I would hate to give that up.''
Garden in Midtown
Mr. Cohen, who has been shopping at the flower market for a decade, is heir to a rich Manhattan tradition that extends back to the 19th century, when flower pushcarts and shops, many owned by immigrants from Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and especially Greece, emerged to cater to rising demand. Growers from Long Island took the ferry into the city and went from retailer to retailer, selling their wares.
By the 1870's, according to Sarah Henry, the deputy director for programs at the Museum of the City of New York, these transactions were consolidated near the East 34th Street ferry landing. With the emergence of the site, a new class of businessman appeared: the flower wholesaler, who gathered cut flowers from growers and sold them to retailers for a commission.
By the mid-1890's most wholesalers had moved to Sixth Avenue between 26th and 29th Streets. They wanted to be closer to their customers, both the upscale department stores along Ladies' Mile and the elegant residences on Fifth Avenue, but also the theaters, restaurants and brothels in the nearby Tenderloin district.
The flower district soon became entrenched and flourished there into the 1970's. In its heyday, it drew buyers from throughout the metropolitan region and even from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. More tons of flowers changed hands in New York than anywhere in the world except Amsterdam, according to a 1977 newspaper article.
The old market was dominated by family businesses, and by men. In a back room of his shop, Mitchell Vlachos, an owner of Harry Vlachos Inc., keeps a yellowed photograph of a 1935 dinner given by the Wholesale Cut Flower Protective Association at a restaurant called Billy the Oysterman's. In the picture, 36 men in suits, each with a carnation boutonniere, sit at long tables. Only two are smiling.
''The old-school flower market had character,'' said Mike Nikolis, an owner of Bill's Flower Market. Men with cigars clamped in their teeth roamed the streets before dawn, and their bartering was cut with off-color jokes. There was a local bookie, who could be found at Pete and Nick's, a long-gone coffee shop that served as a market-gathering place. And unlike enclaves like the Fulton Fish Market, the flower district, with its plant-lined streets, sat right in the much-traveled heart of Midtown. ''Chaos, the smell of chrysanthemums, that's all I remember,'' Mr. Nikolis said. ''You could smell the chrysanthemums from a block away.''
A House Divided
Efforts to move this picturesque place date back decades. As long ago as 1918, a splinter group of wholesalers moved to the Siegel-Cooper Building, on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street; two years later, they moved back to the heart of the district.
By the late 1970's, however, some large wholesalers began to migrate for good to the suburbs. Others followed, and, today, the market is a shell of its former self.
''There is no market,'' said Mr. Rosenberg of Superior Florists. ''It doesn't exist anymore. O.K., that's a little dramatic, but it's not like it used to be.'' His shop, once flanked by wholesale flower merchants, now finds itself at the outskirts of the district, sandwiched between a wholesale jeweler and a wholesale purse and bag shop.
The forces hurting the market grew stronger in 1995, when the local zoning was changed to allow for housing. Since then, four residential towers, with a total of nearly 1,200 units, have sprung up in the district. The newest addition, the gleaming 38-story Aston, stands at 28th Street and the Avenue of the Americas like a beacon of the neighborhood's future, with rents that range from $2,200 a month for a studio to $2,500 for a two-bedroom unit.
As newcomers move in, clashes increase. Residents have complained about blocked sidewalks and open garbage bags spilling flowers, while merchants complain that parking and traffic problems have made it prohibitively difficult for customers to visit their stores.
The market was also battered by 9/11 and the recession, which merchants say drove down business 25 to 40 percent, as well as industry changes that have cut into profits. Improved transportation and the rise of the Internet have allowed more florists to buy direct from growers in places like Holland. The city's wholesalers face more competition from their suburban counterparts, and the retailers must compete with the ubiquitous New York delis that sell flowers around the clock.
''All my costs have gone up over the years,'' Mr. Nikolis said. ''My rose prices have gone down. Where's the money to be made?'' On Valentine's Day in 1978, he said, roses sold retail for $3 a stem. This year, he could get only $2 a stem. Meanwhile, costs of expenses like labor, parking tickets and insurance have climbed.
The Flower Market Association, the trade group that represents wholesalers and retailers, was formed in 1999 to help merchants find a new space, but its efforts have been uphill. Many alternative sites have been identified, only to be rejected. Failed candidates include locations in College Point, Queens, and Hunts Point in the Bronx; the Harlem River Yards; the old Global Crossing building on 11th Avenue; and the former site of the Tunnel nightclub on West 28th Street.
Usable open space in the city is increasingly scarce, but the biggest stumbling block to relocation seems to be disputes among the merchants themselves. James Cooke, the executive director of the association and its only paid, full-time staff member, left in November, after 15 months on the job. There are no plans to replace him. Merchants had hoped the group would grow under his leadership, but membership stands at 44, down from 70 less than two years ago. ''The feeling was that we were absolutely nowhere closer after having employed James,'' said Mr. Page, who is the owner of G. Page Wholesale Flowers as well as the association president.
Mr. Cooke insists that he did everything he could to increase membership but was hobbled by a tough economy and the fact that, as he put it, ''flower market people are generally tight with a buck.'' Mr. Cooke, who now works for a nonprofit group based in Montvale, N.J., said he had trouble getting even charter members to show up for meetings. ''I tried to provide as much leadership as I could, given the conflicted signals I got from a variety of people,'' he said. ''There are just some basic disconnects that you can't bridge.''
The association suffers from economic fault lines. The biggest problem, according to several merchants, is that some wholesalers sell directly to individual customers, undercutting the retailers' business.
Real estate also divides the group. Merchants who own their shops are in no hurry to leave, even though they could profit greatly from leasing or selling their property. But those who rent are highly vulnerable to the escalating cost of local land. Mr. Sadek, for instance, said he had been paying $30 a square foot, but as he hunted for a new store, the asking prices ran from $120 to $150 a square foot. As Victor Rallis, who has worked for four decades at the flower wholesaler his father started, put it: ''The biggest problem I see is that someone always wants to stay behind in the city. Then you get, 'Well, if he's staying, I'm not going.'''
Moreover, while many wholesalers are willing to relocate outside Manhattan, many retailers regard such a move as suicidal. ''I'm used to the Upper East Siders coming down and spending $500 to $800 to do their terrace in the spring,'' Mr. Sadek said. ''I'm not going to go fight with Home Depot.''
It was a refusal to leave Manhattan that sank the Long Island City proposal. Now the association is focusing on sites in Manhattan, including the new Durst building and the Gansevoort area. Next month, the designer Diane von Furstenberg is to hold a benefit at her studio on West 12th Street to raise more money to study the practicality of a move to Gansevoort.
Fish and Flowers
Although the flower district has been struggling mightily with the issue of relocation, not every other market has had such problems. Next January, for example, every one of the Fulton Fish Market's 50-plus merchants will move into a candy-colored, fully refrigerated $85 million city-built facility in Hunts Point.
Flower sellers have a very different relationship with the city. Three-quarters of the fish market is currently housed in city-owned property, and by moving those merchants out of lower Manhattan, the city will open up a prime piece of real estate. That is not the case with the flower market, whose buildings are held by a variety of private owners. According to Councilwoman Quinn, this may be one reason past administrations didn't stay committed to helping the flower market move.
Another difference is that fish occupy a bigger place in the city economy than flowers. While the Fulton Fish Market employs about 600 people, the flower market has an estimated 250 workers. As for revenue, the city's Economic Development Corporation estimates that the fish market generates $1 billion a year. The agency does not keep statistics for the flower market, but according to a 2000 estimate by the Flower Market Association, its revenues were $100 million to $120 million and have subsequently fallen.
Ms. Quinn suspects that the small size of the flower market may also affect the way it is treated by the city. ''At the end of the day, how many jobs an industry creates certainly drives the level of attention they get from government,'' she said.
Janel Patterson, an E.D.C. spokeswoman, rebutted the claim, saying that the city had been working with the flower market for several years to find adequate, affordable space. ''We recognize its importance to the city's economy,'' she said, ''and we're eager to help them in their relocation efforts.''
Where the market goes from here is uncertain, although many people expect the flower market to cleave along economic lines: Wholesalers and renters will go, somewhere; retailers and owners will stay.
Mr. Rallis is optimistic that some sort of move will occur. ''Moving this market in unison is an impossible task,'' he said. ''Moving it with the least fragmentation possible is doable.'' If a large part of the market moves, and the site has parking and ample space, he added, ''people will want to come.''
Others are less sure. ''The market is not going to go anywhere,'' Mr. Nikolis predicted. ''Nobody can agree on the time of day. You want them to move to a new location? No way.''
What would it take? ''A miracle,'' he replied.