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…
It was reported over the weekend 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.
I have a personal history with this space, as a resident who was sent to the market to shop for my family’s table, and as a place I developed many of my teen-aged interests in books, bikes, clothes, music, gifts…this was definitely the bazaar that I was in 3 – 4 times a week.
Since the beginning of 2003, I also had a work history with this space when my non-profit, (known then as ECOnomics Institute, and as Market Umbrella since 2008) operating as Crescent City Farmers Markets, became involved in its operation. The history of the March 2003 – August 2005 Crescent City Farmers Market is recorded here because there will be many that immediately suggest that local food and in particular a farmers market-is what should be added; in fact, I have already fielded some of that type of comment on social media. And it should be noted that the 2014 reopening of that CCFM market was recently shelved and moved to the Rusty Rainbow location on the Crescent Park where it has already attracted more shoppers than this post-K version had in the FM shed location.
Back to 2003: That is when the then-director of the French Market, Richard McCall* invited us to reopen a farmers market in the shed area. We knew it was a tall order but I remember very well that when Richard McCarthy, ECOnomics Institute’s founder and director asked me, “do you think we should try to work with the French Market?” I answered, “I can’t imagine how we can operate markets in New Orleans and not deal with the existing public market,” which fit what he had already been thinking. So we embarked on this relationship with the French Market to see if we could revive it as a place for local growers and eaters.
It helped that Richard McCarthy and I were two locals who had not written off the French Market, and continued to argue among friends that it was still a place where immigrants entered the entrepreneurial arena, locals still held dear (even if was often with false memories or with unreasonable expectations) and where millions of visitors’ spending could be captured by participating in what is at the heart of what New Orleans does well, meaning operate as a port of entry, celebrate the diverse culture, and host a wide set of users in our dynamic public space. (Remember times were different back then. Not so out of control with tourists’ expectations, and not 17 million of them either. Although even then, we did know to calibrate tourists versus residents needs in our work.)
So we gave it a big try, ran this one from 10-2 Wednesdays, and like every other market we opened, we had to try things, and then retry them, and then realize that some of the ideas that worked at other of our markets wouldn’t work there and try some brand-new things.
By summer of 2005, we had reinvented this Wednesday market almost 3 complete times (which was similar to our Tuesday and Thursday’s markets btw) and hit upon a few truths in doing it, some of which seemed counterintuitive. We also noticed some things about the French Market, which were only noticeable to regular users.
Here is what we figured out:
• As new stakeholders, w were committed to helping the FM staff go through a charette for redeveloping the whole big idea of this space. (Credit to McCarthy who suggested that FM renovate their public bathrooms to be the most beautiful in the city; to me that was the best idea I heard, which they ignored.) As part of this larger process to help the French Market, we became very publicly supportive of their efforts which was sort of new as before then both entities operated towards the other with benign neglect, which meant no public trash talking and mostly a shrug when asked about the other. With this new partnership, we also did our best to offer whatever analysis we could, which extended to the months after Hurricane Katrina, which I will talk more about in Part 2 of this post series.
• We knew that the small number of residents that were available during Wednesdays would not serve the market that we expected this market to serve. We anticipated that the “trade zone” for this market was actually Treme, Marigny, Bywater neighborhoods , and workers in the Quarter. We knew we’d only get a smattering of FQ residents, but we felt, based on our experience with them at the Magazine street location, they would be among the most loyal users of the market. We didn’t care if tourists used our market and mostly expected them not to.
• That it takes 18 months to 2 years to build a successful market with its own culture and energy and yes we knew that too. And that partners never understand that, no matter how often you say it. And vendors mostly don’t believe it either.
• We had begun to attract notice in our field (including funders) from outside of the region, and hoped we could focus our support from the national field of markets to help us develop this market.
• We had the full support and attention of food activists like Poppy Tooker, and most of the media who wrote about food.
• Ditto with the area chefs, although the type we needed to attract to our markets were hard to find in and around the Quarter. (In short, they had to be chefs known to the public, and in control of purchasing which was not always true of corporate or hotel restaurants.)
What we didn’t anticipate:
• A significant number of our current anchor vendors had been vendors at the French Market, and had less than great experiences with staff and management and could not let go of their (valid) bitterness.
• The free parking would not be a draw because no one understood how to access the lot we were offering and if they did, didn’t want to drive to it.
• New Orleanians are loathe to shop where tourists shop, even if it serves the locals purposes.
• Current vendors of the French Market would feel we were competition, even though we sold nothing that competed with their products.
• Many of the French Market staff simply saw us as more work and resented our presence and even thwarted our market day activities.
• Seniors loved weekday markets and we found out that a lot of centers had shuttles to bring folks to us. Wednesdays became a popular place for those shuttles.
• Our main way to do informal and regular marketing was through yard signs; unfortunately, FQ folks did not like them and called to complain about them regularly, even though we put them out and picked them up right before and after the market. This had not been a problem at the other markets.
• Based on the size and newness of direct-to-consumer agriculture in the area, our anchor vendors could only serve 2 markets full-time as a rule of thumb. For most of them, any more than two markets and either the quality of products or attendance by the growers themselves became an issue.
Still, by the summer of 2005, this market was attracting 350-500 shoppers per week. Our other markets were 2-4 times that size, so our anchor vendors were still disappointed in those numbers, although I think many would be happy today with those numbers. As a result, many dropped out, but we had a long list of waiting vendors and we developed a new system that required them to start at this market. This helped in more ways than hurt, allowing us to develop new anchor vendors as our Tuesday and Thursday market had in their time. We had begun to attract younger shoppers who were not yet shopping at our other markets, and our market manager Tatum Evans had built real trust with senior centers across downtown, most of which were using Wednesday and Thursday as their shopping days. This optimistic future for this market was a bit of an issue by 2005 as this market took much more time than our other weekday markets to design, to manage, and to figure out its marketing. And is serving 350-500 shoppers the right thing for a small, nimble market organization to do when it may be possible to add another “flagship”market location on the edge of 2-3 neighborhoods as our other locations offered?
Then Katrina happened.
End of Part 1.
Some of my other posts about the French Market are found here.
*Yes the French Market director and our ED had very similar names and (I believe) had gone to Newman together! New Orleans is way less than 6 degrees of separation…
Part 2: 2005-2010: Our community, our markets, the French Market, and the overall regional recovery.