Public Food Markets Enhance the Quality of Life in a Community
Early in the country’s history, Americans bought much of the food they didn’t grow themselves from local farmers at public markets that were a focal point of their communities. Many of those markets faded away in the last century, but now public markets are roaring back.
Public market advocates say that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a room he rented overlooking a public market in Philadelphia. Could it be that Jefferson’s stirring call for American independence was inspired in some way by the sound of farmers and their customers haggling over the price of cabbage and tomatoes? It’s an intriguing possibility.
Over the years, outdoor markets evolved into ornate market halls in many cities, but most of the public markets disappeared, due largely to advances in refrigeration and transportation that allowed supermarkets to sell year-round food produced in distant places. Strawberries out of season in Philadelphia? No problem. We’ll get them from farmers in Florida, California or Chile.
Public markets are undergoing a huge revival all over the country. More than ever, savvy American consumers want to buy their fruit, vegetables and other food stuffs, much of It produced organically, from local farmers at local markets.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported earlier this year that there are 6,132 public markets across the country — a 16 percent increase in just one year. The New York-based Project for Public Places (PPS), reported that the number of open-air farmers markets increased from 1,700 to more than 5,000 in just 15 years. PPS assists and advises governments and groups interested in developing public markets all over the world.
“Public markets are not just places of commerce,” PPS said in an article on its website, www.pps.org. “Successful markets help grow and connect urban and rural economies. They encourage development, enhance real estate values and the tax base, and keep money in the local neighborhood. Public markets also offer low-risk business opportunities for vendors and feed money back into the rural economy where many vendors grow, raise and produce their products.”
Another benefit is the way markets bring people from different backgrounds together, allowing them to mix and mingle comfortably, PPS said.
“A lot of people find one of the great amenities in a neighborhood is having a market in the neighborhood that you can walk or bike to,” said PPS consultant David O’Neil, former manager of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. “Markets are very social. People tend to go to the market with other people.”
Public markets operate from one to seven days a week. Many are seasonal, especially in colder cities, but some operate year-round. The number of farmers who sell their produce at the markets can range from a handful to more than 100. Attendance ranges from a few thousand to the 200,000 pedestrians who crowd the area around the Union Square Greenmarket in Lower Manhattan on summer Saturdays.
The vast majority of the markets operating today are open-air farmers markets where local farmers sell their produce from stalls or booths. About 100 of the grand old market halls that once dominated the urban foodscape have been preserved and restored. At least one of them, Pike Place Market in Seattle, is a must-see tourist attraction where fishmongers delight visitors by hurling hefty salmon over the counters.
The Union Square Greenmarket in a popular New York park located just north of Greenwich Village is probably the best known farmers market in the country. The Union Square market is one of 51 greenmarkets operated by GrowNYC in all five of the city’s boroughs, assuring New Yorkers that fresh local produce is readily available no matter where they live.
Union Square Greenmarket is open four days a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, attracting farmers from up to 250 miles away. Greenmarket advocates said the two-acre market has resulted in the preservation of 30,000 acres of farmland in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area.
“We have a producer-only market, meaning we’re an opportunity for small family farms,” said Jeanne Hodesh, publicity and special events coordinator for Greenmarket. “Our mission is twofold: to generate a steady source of produce to the New York City market and to provide steady sources of income to small family farmers.”
Once rundown, squalid and populated by drug dealers, Union Square Park has been revitalized since the Greenmarket opened in 1976 and the neighborhood now ranks as one of New York’s hottest retail areas, even in the midst of the national recession.
“The Greenmarket has been a huge part of the reason why the neighborhood has fared as well as it did during the economic downtown in the last couple years,” Jennifer E. Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, told the New York Times.
The Union Square Greenmarket boasts an extra added at-traction that few other farmers markets can match — top New York chefs or their “foragers” come to the market first thing in the morning to buy produce for their restaurants. Hodesh said they use specially designed bicycles and carts to haul the produce back to their restaurants.
Once a quarter, she said, Greenmarket sponsors a “Tours and Tastes” event where a chef leads groups of 15 to 20 people through the market, encourages the farmers to talk about their crops and takes the group back to his or her restaurant to whip up a gourmet meal featuring produce purchased at the market.
The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia is a farmers market located in a 78,000-square-foot market hall built in 1892. The building was owned by the defunct Reading Railroad, which operated a train station on the second floor above the market.
General Manager Paul Steinke said the Reading Terminal Market attracts about 115,000 visitors a week, about 5.7 million a year. “We’re very careful to try not to cater too heavily to tourists,” he said. “We don’t have any souvenir stands. We don’t have any chains or franchises at all. It’s all locally owned businesses.” The market is open seven days a week year-round, flying in produce from California, Florida and South America in the winter, Steinke said.
In 1980, after the railroad folded, the market was down to 20 vendors and was close to collapse. A couple of managers from the Reading Co., the real estate company that succeeded the railroad, drove out to Pennsylvania Dutch country west of Philadelphia, and invited about a dozen Amish farmers to sell their goods at the market. The Amish farmers revived public interest in the market, and the Reading Co. invested heavily in restoring it. Thirty years later, 13 Amish farmers are among the 78 vendors who sell their goods at the market.
Pike Place Market, the sprawling market district on the edge of downtown Seattle, also has a no chains policy, but with one notable exception: The first Starbucks, dating to 1971, is located in the market.
Pike Place is a market behemoth, comprised of 23 buildings spread out over nine acres. Eight buildings have residential components, mostly apartments for low-income seniors.
The market was targeted for demolition in the 1960s by politically connected developers who wanted to build a hotel, apartments, four office buildings, a hockey arena and a parking garage on the site. Market lovers rose up in opposition and passed a 1971 initiative preserving the market and creating The Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority to run it.
About 100 farmers rent tables by the day with 40 more setting up outside on “Farm Days on the Cobblestones” during summer Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Pike Place is much more than a farmers market, however. The district is also home to more than 200 year-round commercial businesses, 190 craftspeople, 70 restaurants, four fish markets and 240 street performers and musicians.
Responding to charges that customers buying produce were being gouged by merchants, Seattle politicians created the Pike Place market in 1907. The market’s website says that eight farmers drove their wagons to the market on opening day — and were overwhelmed by 10,000 eager shoppers.
Last year, said Scott Davies, public information specialist for the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, the district attracted 10 million visitors and generated $100 million in sales. The Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau advises on its website that “No trip to Seattle is complete without a trip to Pike Place…”
PPS’ O’Neil said the River Market, a few blocks from Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., is an excellent example of a market that has contributed to revitalization of a downtown neighborhood in a smaller city. The market includes a market hall that opened in 1996 and a farmers market under two pavilions that’s open two days a week from May to October.
“It’s extremely popular,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. “If you go down there early in the morning you have to squeeze through the crowds. We’ve been trying for years to make that critical mass happen.”
Doug Smith, a Little Rock REALTOR®, said he and his wife love the farmers market and go there often. Smith has taken up canning and buys the okra he likes to pickle at the market. “It’s a really cool farmers market,” Smith said. “They’ve got a wonderful pavilion where they have it. It’s a very cool destination.”
The French Market in New Orleans is one of the oldest continuously occupied market sites in the country, with the original buildings constructed by the Spanish in 1779. The market is located near the Mississippi River at the eastern end of the French Quarter next door to the Café du Monde, famous for its delectable beignets.
The market’s status as a farmers market is greatly diminished with most of the space now occupied by a flea market, tourist souvenir shops and prepared food stands. It may be a good place to buy gumbo, but not to buy the ingredients to make your own gumbo.
Amy Kirk, marketing director for the French Market Corp., said competition from other markets, some of which were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and a drop in the population of the French Quarter due to rising housing prices, were factors in the decline of the food market that once served much of the city.
“We’re trying to get farmers to come here, but they are not seeing the kind of traffic they used to see,” Kirk said. “I would say it would be a year before they begin to come back.”
Urban Groceries —a boon for economic development in downtowns
A revitalized area of downtown St. Louis where young professionals and empty nesters are moving into renovated loft apartments had a lot going for it, but one thing was missing — a grocery store. In fact, there were no grocery stores in downtown St. Louis.
That changed on Aug. 11, 2009, when Schnucks, a St. Louis-based supermarket chain with 105 stores in seven states, opened a prototype urban grocery called Culinaria.
“It has a trendy upscale look,” said Gail Brown, a St. Louis REALTOR® who specializes in the downtown area. “It’s very hip, very urban. It fits right in, I think, to the lifestyle that people who want to live downtown en- joy. It’s wonderful asset to the downtown community.”
Many downtown and inner city neighborhoods are “food deserts” lacking grocery stores where residents can buy good food conveniently at reasonable prices, but that is rapidly changing. Many supermarket chains, including trendsetters Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, are opening smaller urban stores in cities across the country. Even big box giant Walmart is reportedly working on plans to build 300 to 400 downsized urban groceries in the 20,000-square-foot range.
Urban groceries typically run in the range of 10,000 to 25,000 square feet, although Rouses, a supermarket chain with 37 stores in Louisiana and Mississippi, is building a 40,000-square-foot store in an old Cadillac dealership in downtown New Orleans, which has seen a surge of condo and apartment construction. Suburban supermarkets usually range 40,000 to 50,000 square feet, with some running as large as 80,000 square feet, said Larry Lund, a Chicago supermarket consultant.
Culinaria has two levels, a 21,000-square-foot grocery store on the first floor and a 5,000-square-foot wine bar and market upstairs. Lori Willis, Schnucks communications director, said the wine bar has become a popular place for downtown office workers to meet for lunch and drinks after work.