New Orleans-In 2016, Crescent City Farmers Market announced that the flagship Saturday morning farmers market – held at the corner of Magazine and Girod since 1995 – would need to find a new home by fall. As the new market era at Julia and Carondelet begins, one-time market staff and long-time shopper Dar Wolnik looks back on the muraled parking lot.
The circa 1991 mural of a coffee wagon heading to a small town store and Boatner Reily’s prized chinaberry tree set the parking lot apart from others near it in the CBD. I wasn’t there in 1995 when two of the Crescent City Farmers Market (CCFM) founders, the recently departed and sorely missed Sharon Litwin and the geographically departed, sorely missed, but still kicking Richard McCarthy, happened upon the corner and realizing its potential for their upcoming market, arranged to meet with the Reily Foods patriarch. Richard often shared the story of how when he completed his pitch, Boatner asked how much money he was requesting. Richard replied, “I don’t want your money, I want your parking lot Saturday mornings.” He was reportedly charmed by the request and gratified that his new mural and carefully tended tree would serve as the host for this idea. That handshake lasted for 21 years.
The lot and mural are attached to a one-story garage used on weekdays by the Reily Foods employees. The warehouse district used to be full of buildings just like it, but just like this one’s fate in the very near future, they were torn down for shiny, much taller buildings. The garage has a large central space where the rainy day markets were held, with storage rooms around its edges and an off-limits parking area at the back.
The inside garage was affectionately nicknamed “Little Calcutta” for the humidity and humanity it contains when used by the market. One of the garage doors hasn’t opened since early 2005; it’s an old sliding doorway that used to be opened for needed airflow and an added entry but after a while the tracks became rusted and trash-filled. Finally, the market vendors learned how to avoid market staff when we went to get help to open or to close it. So we stopped using it. Certain spots in the roof would drip during heavy rains and vendors learned to set up just to the right or left. We actually marked the floor to make it easier until finally, the roof was repaired. I think actual lights were added then too, all of which made it seem like Santa Claus had finally stopped by to reward our good behavior. Or maybe it was that we just got around to asking the owners for those things. Sometimes it’s hard to know what and when to ask for when a place is offered free of charge and comes with donated cans of coffee too.
We used to dream of spiffing up the garage by whitewashing the walls and adding murals or posters, but as we say here, then Katrina happened. No other explanation should be needed.
The storage room used by the market was a loose description (see below), and had a lock on the door that probably could have been broken by an excited dog jumping up on the frame. It also came with an air shaft/skylight in the middle of the room that supplied the only light in there. Sometimes it was better to work in the dark so that whatever critters who lived in the gloom could not be seen. I still shudder thinking about it. The current staff doesn’t believe me when I tell them that this storage space was a step up from the previous one that we finally had to evacuate. Once out of the old space, I don’t believe anyone has ever entered it again.
The outside parking lot was the real home of the market though, with its hedges on the Magazine Street side that made it easy for drunks and street folks to use as a bathroom or to hide contraband in on a Friday night, leaving a horrified North Shore farmer to discover at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Those hedges were also ideal for hanging a temporary market sign and in limiting the “”leaky” entrances, as market organizers term those places where some enterprising visitors dart into, disconcerting those who expect everyone to enter at their front.
The Girod side was open to the sidewalk with only an asphalt dip and some yellow parking barriers between. When the market was at its largest size (summer 2004-2005) vendors had to set up facing the sidewalk on that side. We found that asking farmers to squeeze into spaces with their tables touching or almost touching their fellow vendors tables was a tricky and delicate undertaking and that it was often easier to ask them to fill secondary space. I am sure that is no surprise to any market manager.
The other two sides of the lot contained the mural which became the gorgeous backdrop to the market. In pictures, it offered an unrealistic sense of the size of the market and I often saw visitors who came to pay homage a little disappointed at the size of the actual market. I’d approach them and introduce myself and almost invariably get the “It’s…smaller than I thought it would be.” The mural could also be a point of tension as the market organization was tasked with its protection during market hours, leading to constant reminders to vendors who liked to lean things against it. The wall made the spaces right below shady for some hours, which was welcome in the summer but not in the winter. Funny to watch people congregate in different places in the market depending on the season, just like cats searching for that spot with the perfect amount of warm sun or cool shade.
The small size of the lot meant that vendors had to “offload” their products, using the ancient, creaky Reily hand trucks or by carrying items from the vehicle one armful at a time to their tables outside. In the early days, everyone used umbrellas and one of the green, handmade tables supplied by the market making the overall site colorful and human-scaled. Once 10’ x 10” pop up tents became available, vendors began to use those instead and a sea of white became the dominant sight. That is until the number of vendors increased and led to fights about tent poles intruding on the neighboring space and as a result, vendor tents had to be done away with although the market itself still used them for their activities. Umbrellas returned, the mural was front and center again and vendors spent many successive mornings constantly readjusting them to maximize the shade and to secure them from gusts or from wildly gesturing shoppers. I know that Richard was secretly pleased by the loss of tents, as he was always obsessed with the visuals of what we were presenting. He found umbrellas so inviting that he even renamed the organization Market Umbrella when we left Loyola University and our ECOnomics Institute name behind in 2008.
At its maximum in those years, the market welcomed a few thousand shoppers during its four hours of sales that offer a stage for successive casts of characters. Like most long-standing markets, the opening hour of 8 a.m. was for those seasoned shoppers who knew where to park, what they wanted to buy and how to get the heck outta there before the perusers came at 9 a.m. Those second hour folks liked to chat, stick around a while and usually bought what was most appealing on that day or recommended to them right then by their friends or their favorite farmers. They grumbled about parking a great deal. After that group headed to the next cultural outing of the day, the service workers and other late-nighters slowly showed up. The number of bikes locked on all available posts and groups of bleary-eyed socializers squeezing in to any available seating were good indicators of the 10 o’clock hour starting. In the last hour, one saw some tourists, those new to markets as well as a few hard-core regulars who like many New Orleanians simply do not get out of the house until around the lunch hour.
Many more subgroups, special guests and even some “bad pennies,” all of whom made that space sparkle and hum every Saturday morning for 21 years, could be studied there as the sum of the social capital created by the market. We market staff often took the time to do just that, either from the vantage point of the low Reily building roof across Girod or while standing across the street on Magazine.
We valued that space so much that, as we began to design our fair trade/handmade market in 2002 that we called “Festivus, the Holiday Market For the Rest of Us,” we never questioned setting it up there, in the middle of Girod Street in years 1 and 2 and then on December Sundays in the same parking lot for years 3, 4 and 5 of Festivus’ run. Festivus was meant to drive sales to our farmers market during slow December and to allow our organization to move the dial a little more on the artisanal/entrepreneurial movement around us. Using the same lot for a new seasonal market meant we had freedom to design it differently and to include more wacky ideas than we could squeeze into our regular market. Many people still stop me to reminisce about the Office of Homeland Serenity, the Grievance Pole, the Flattery Booth or some of the other moments of the 2003-2007 era of Festivus.
I consider it my great honor to have played a part in Market Umbrella’s history at that location, to have worked with the Reily Company staff and to now to be one of the local keepers of the stories about Sharon and Richard and John and the vendors and shoppers of those first days and of that space. The space itself is owed many thanks and so don’t be alarmed if at the first light on a Saturday, you notice a small group there with a bottle and glasses toasting the good fortune of having 700 Magazine as our flagship home for all of those years.
I was the Deputy Director of Market Umbrella and then its Marketshare Director during 2001-2011. Since then, I continue to work as a national consultant for public markets and also as the senior researcher at Farmers Market Coalition, the national farmers market advocacy organization.