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, although I think the setting has already been improved a great deal in recent years.The main reason this seems opportune is 1) the limited availability of any public spaces in the city to try small, discrete pilots that center around cultural connections and entrepreneurial zeal means that this might be a unique moment, and 2) also because the current FM Director has been quietly impressive.
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 that 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. And the city is almost a completely different one that what existed on August 28, 2005. I’d like to see that history really analyzed, much more than I have done here, 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 population numbers it had a few decades previously. 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 a premium), and a whole lot of activism and street life is still happening here. Interestingly though, 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. And unfortunately, lost great anchors such as Horst Pfeiffer’s Bella Luna who grew tired of waiting for his building’s roof to be repaired.
It simply didn’t have the structure or even the mandate to do capitalize. Instead, it remained an gentle afterthought in a booming Quarter, Marigny, Bywater which were (are) full of millennials terrified of being seen as participants in any setting that lacked an ironic twist or didn’t include a new take on an old place.
The French Market did however, add some very interesting counter restaurants in the sheds who continue to animate that very difficult space. And it also moved community radio station WWOZ into the Red Store building. And the Dutch Alley Artists Co-op continues to attract local artists willing to operate the storefront as a collective. How do those additions change it is the question. Do they? Are they as important to this French Market as Cafe du Monde and the Creole Tomato Festival were to earlier users?
And how does the new New Orleans (shudder) and the new life in the Quarter affect what is or should happen at the French Market?
-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. As a place to show off the diversity of the entrepreneurial community new and venerable, it wears that well. The question is if newly arrived residents are still able to access the French Quarter? The shift in population for immigrant communities moving away from the city center and to the suburbs and even rural areas seems to make the idea of a French Market business a little less ideal for those communities. The answer may be found in some sort of a organized incubator for those business at the French Market or even assistance in product development that may even cater to residents as well as visitors…