It was reported recently that our energetic and active mayor has decided to do something about the French Market. As a 20-year activist in food systems with a 40-year family residency in the French Quarter, I was certainly excited to hear that. And when I hear Seattle’s Pike Place Market as the descriptor for what is desired, I hope that what our Mayor and current French Market leadership meant is to make it a world-class public market that offers interesting educational and entertainment options for all, quality groceries for residents, a laboratory for testing larger food access and farming support innovations, and also (I hope I hope) to host needed services for residents.
Part 2 (Part 1 here) of my four part post:
then Katrina happened:
By September of 2005 while still in exile, we (meaning the parent org of the Crescent City Farmers Market, then known as ECOnomics Institute) created an online bulletin board and chat room for our vendors and for customers of the Crescent City Farmers Market to keep in touch and to tell us when and where they wanted the markets reopened.
Once we knew we could come back and reopen farmers markets in New Orleans because enough producers had product, enough consumers wanted fresh food, and we had places to live, we began to discuss where to put them. Because the “sliver by the river” area of town had not flooded, we knew it would be one of those areas. This was not to ignore the flooded areas, but since any and all space for construction drop off or house demo had to come first, a pop up market was simply in the way in those early days. The Girod Street market location had some damage, so that was out. That left the French Market and Uptown Square as the two locations under consideration, but we quickly realized that the French Market was barely functioning.
Even so, we were still trying to help them by meeting with its director in those early days. I remember that we had dinner with him in early October, discussing how to use the French Market to help rebuild the city. We suggested that they allow Red Cross to use it as a station, and to have city departments set up there. Unfortunately, none of that happened for various reasons, probably most due to the inertia of the complicated system that the French Market was and is managed under. It is important to point out that the public-private partnership it operates under is hard enough, and then one must take in its multiple roles:
- the largest manager of city-owned historic property which stretches from Jackson Square (and includes the upper Pontalba building) down to Esplanade (and that was before the Crescent Park opened);
- the retail manager of all of the storefronts included in those properties;
- the manager of the parking lots bordering the river and those on Elysian Fields;
- the operator and manager of the 2 open sheds at the end of the French Market, including its hundreds of itinerant, permanent vendors;
- one of the primary event creators and managers in the lower river section of the Quarter.
The reason I bring up the post Katrina era (and the earlier revival era that I wrote about in Part 1) is because the future of this venerable place has a lot of baggage to carry with it, and also has some hard truths of the surrounding area that cannot be denied before we can discuss what to do. I’d like to see that history really analyzed, much more than I have done here. Move past the cliches and worn out grievances and really record how what we have has transpired, and make that analysis public.
For example, for any of us here at the time and now, it is clear that the post Katrina era gave the French Quarter some new life. Residents who still had property moved back in while they redid their own houses, others grabbed every rental available (which because there was no damage, did not see its prices tripled as many other areas have done which was great cuz rents for larger, redone apartments there were already on the highest end of the spectrum), and -AND- the great luck of still having a walkable, vibrant area with public space, groceries, and cheery nightlife on the inner edge of the grey, sad, often toxic other 80% of our city was a comfort to all. So it became boom town for a little while and today, it still has an increase in renters and homeowners from the low of around 2000. The Homer Plessy Community School is livening up the corner of St. Philip and Royal, a number of creative and unique shops are doing well (altho commercial space is at aa premium) , and a whole lot of activism and street life is still happening here. Yet still many locals repeat the old story about the French Quarter being “over” as a neighborhood when it is far from that.
That is another issue.
But in any case, the French Market didn’t capitalize on that boom at all. It simply didn’t have the structure or even the mandate to do so. Instead, it remained an afterthought in a booming Quarter, Marigny, Bywater. And even lost great anchors such as Horst Pfeiffer’s Bella Luna who grew tired of waiting for his building’s roof to be repaired. Actually, it did do one thing which was tremendous: moving community radio station WWOZ into the Red Store building. (More of THAT is exactly what is still needed, along with a redesign of its retail needs and open space.)
So, a few ideas for now:
Create a “pop up”space for emerging retailers to be able to rent a storefront for 3-6 months, contingent on being a local resident and offering something of value to residents.
Incentivize 2-3 retailers sharing one space.
Offer incentives for retailers who live in the Quarter.
Create an authentic, small food hall in one of the sheds that strictly maintains local procurement and fair employment.
Change some of the Upper Pontalba to rent-controlled apartments available to FM shopkeepers or restaurant staff. Offer affordable 3rd story apartments there to service staff and incentivize their leases if they will offer community service hours as street ambassadors to answer questions or to help at events.
Highlight the many contributions people of color and immigrants have made to New Orleans with meaningful events around those cultures. NOT one sized fits all festivals, but Dutch Alley sized community events that allow the Vietnamese, Latinx, native (Bulbancha), Creoles of color, Central American and other communities to celebrate and educate in full view.
Offer a Useful Market once a month, with seamstresses, tire and bike repair, electronic repair, dog grooming, notaries, furniture repair and so on.
Offer free 90 minutes of parking on weekdays in the Elysian Fields lots. Add lots of bike racks.
Add more seating, add more public fountains, and add a small splash center on the FQ end of the Crescent Park that requires a local id to get in..
Use part of one shed to manage an aggregation hub for local produce houses to drop off ordered goods for area restaurants, and create a Cushman delivery service to those restaurants. Maybe even create a small F&V FQ/Treme buying club for residents (especially seniors!) that does the same.
Have city agencies and NGOs that serve the local population housed there.
Set up a recycling center for the city, add education center about litter for tourists.
The main idea is to draw from the grassroots energy of the city around it, and do what Market Umbrella founder Richard McCarthy said about the Crescent City Farmers Markets when asked in an interview about what it does to serve tourists. He said, “Oh we ignore them.” When the interviewer professed shock at that, Richard continued, “Yes because any tourist that found there way to the local farmers market did that because he/she wants to go where locals go, and do what locals do. They want to be mistaken for a local. So we don’t cater to tourists. Those who find their way to us can congratulate themselves on participating in the authentic culture. Everyone wins: the vendors get some tourist dollars, but the locals keep their market for them.”
Everyone wins, especially when “the most dollars possible” is not the main indicator used for the functions of public buildings and historic places.
Everyone wins when the old market is inclusive and dynamic and focused on the needs of residents first.
Everyone wins when an anchor institution contextualizes its offerings to its time and place.
-Part 3 will focus on the flea market on the end of the French Market, which must be dealt with, even though its history and its activity is not all as horrible as some residents make it out to be.