November 27, 2015

Coming Soon: The End of an Era

If you live in southern New England and you ever thought a florist or floral designer did an especially imaginative job choosing the flowers for a wedding, flower show, or garden club presentation, you should probably include the Boston Flower Exchange in your thanks.  At the ‘flower exchange’, as most people refer to it, the aforementioned florists and designers can browse 13 wholesalers under one, 75,000-square-foot roof that is wall-to-wall displays.
The flower exchange is a venerable institution that has its origins back when greenhouses in the hinterlands around the city grew summer and winter blooms (notably carnations, roses and camellias) for the carriage trade.  Over time, ‘outside’ flowers were allowed in. 
Today, the source of most flowers is South America and the Netherlands.  They’re flown in overnight and, beginning at 2 a.m., the flower exchange wholesalers collect their orders at Logan Airport, bring them to the market, sort them, and have them ready for sale before 5 a.m.  I can attest that at 6 a.m. the flower exchange is in high gear.  By 9 a.m. the stalls are mostly bare and the market formally closes at noon.
The beauty of the flower exchange is the breadth of offering and specialization.  One stall specializes in ‘tropicals’, another in orchids.  If you can’t find the right shade of the specific flower you need at Chester Brown, try Cupp & Cupp or Carbone.  If you need 100 dozen roses in the exact same hue of cream for a wedding next Saturday, explain you need to the salesman at Riccardi and let them ensure your order is filled.
Inside the flower exchange
Although not part of the Boston Flower Exchange, life for those florists and designers is made easier still by the presence of Jacobson Floral Supply.  Housed in a supermarket-sized building adjacent to the flower exchange, Jacobson offers everything imaginable (except cut flowers) someone could need. 
You would think that every city would have its own flower exchange.  You would be wrong.  Most cities – including most major cities – have widely dispersed wholesalers, requiring florists and designers to either establish a strong rapport with one of those wholesalers, or else to drive from one end of (say) Houston to the other to find what they need.   Out-of-town designers who come to Boston for events have nothing but high praise the institution, and uniformly wish it was replicated back they came from.
When the flower exchange (center,
with Jacobson's just to the left) was
built, the neighborhood was seedy
You would also think that the future of the Boston Flower Exchange would be as secure as the North End’s Paul Revere statue.  Again, you would be wrong.  The flower exchange led a peripatetic existence for decades before settling in the old Cyclorama Building in the South End in 1923.  By 1963, however, that building’s future was threatened by redevelopment and the Exchange’s Board of Directors went looking for a permanent home.
They found it a mile away in a desolate, 5.6 acre plot hard by the elevated Southeast Expressway amid gritty, abandoned industrial loft buildings.  Built on land that was once part of Boston Harbor, a functional, one-story building with ample parking and loading docks opened in 1971.  Jacobson Floral Design built their store on an adjoining plot.  For more than four decades, florists and designers had a readily accessible, central market where the lone complaint was crime (ameliorated by a steel fence around the perimeter of the property, and then more recently by a much improving neighborhood).
Today, the flower exchange sits atop
a 'hot' property and has been sold
But in the second decade of the new century, that part of South Boston has become exceptionally attractive to developers.  In September 2014, the Exchange’s Board received an unsolicited offer of more than $35 million for the site.  Other offers quickly followed.  In May 2015, the vendors who make up the Board voted overwhelmingly to accept the offer from a still-unidentified buyer.  The transfer and closing of the market will take place before December 2017.
The reality of the closing of the market – and the apparent likelihood that there is no replacement facility on the horizon – has started to sink in among those who have always relied on the flower exchange.  One highly regarded North Shore floral designer mused about the situation during a floral demonstration last week.  His favorite wholesaler – one who has always found just the right blooms for demanding clients – is contemplating retiring rather than relocating; a devastating change that would add an unwanted, new layer of complexity to what is already a demanding business.
I think about the fifty-plus amateur designers who enter the competition at the Boston Flower & Garden Show on each of its two entry days in March.  They receive no compensation for their design; only a ribbon or two.  To earn that ribbon, they’ll spend many hours (sometimes several dozen), creating a unique design at home.  Then, the day before they enter their design in competition, they converge on the flower market between 5 and 6 a.m. where they’ll spend an hour or more searching out the perfect blooms among several wholesalers.  Those flowers will go back home where the designers will take a day to ‘condition’ them.  The following morning, those same designers will descend on the Seaport World Trade Center at 5:30 a.m. to create their masterpieces.  All for a ribbon and the satisfaction of having created something beautiful for others to admire.
That frenzy of competition is replicated across half a dozen other ‘major’ shows across the region each year (Topsfield, Marshfield, Barnstable), plus several dozen club shows where the more ambitious designers eschew supermarket flowers in favor of those from the flower exchange.

A change is coming.  An end of an era.  This is one case where the future – at least for floral designers – may not be as bright as the present.