Can the French Market be “saved”? Part 1

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.

 

 

 

34th Annual Mardi Gras Mask Market at the French Market

Friday, February 24th– Monday, February 27th (Lundi Gras)  10:00 am – 4:00 pm daily

Find handmade masks by artisans from around the country who converge at the French Market for this annual event.  It’s the perfect place to GET YOUR MARDI GRAS ON!  Entertainment and masquerading 10:00 am – 4:00 pm daily during the Mask Market.  Held at the French Market in Dutch Alley at the intersection of Decatur & Dumaine.

4 facts about Continental Provisions, the French Market stall

May I be the first to predict the renaissance that will bring the French Quarter renewed respect and attention as our city center. When it does happen, you can be sure that it will be because of food, so remember these entrepreneurs who should receive credit for being among first of the next wave of top-quality food retailers (along with Petit Amelie and Spitfire). Do yourself a favor and get thee there, and don’t whine about how it should be bigger or have more things, just enjoy the new day beginning.

4 facts about Continental Provisions, now open French Market stall from St. James Cheese Co., Cleaver & Co and Bellegarde Bakery | NOLA.com.

Community Architect: The Future of Public Markets and the Case of the Lexington Market in Baltimore

A very good description and some simple rules for revitalizing public shed markets written by a Baltimore architect. He focuses his attention on the Lexington Market (which I have visited when in the area for farmers market business) that he seems to work near enough to observe regularly. I remember on my visits being impressed by the vitality of this market even though the quality and quantity of healthy goods seemed low. I actually still think about this market regularly, because it was a particular kind of anachronism that reminded me of visiting the old West Side Market in Cleveland in the 1960s/1970s; in other words, it still seems exactly like those dark and chaotic largely forgotten shed markets that were sprinkled throughout many American cities back in the mid 20th century. He points out that Lexington already has regular shoppers and acts as a food hub in what is largely a food desert, which is a significant point. It’s interesting that he seems to think that finding ways to attract tourists is one key to making this market really work, which may or may not be true in my estimation. I’ll leave that discussion for another time and post.

In any case, as pointed out by the author, the attention paid recently to many of these markets has often led to one of two outcomes: either successfully engineered spaces full of event activities and local color/products, filled regularly with proud residents on the weekends and eager tourists during the week, OR badly re-designed ones with ridiculous lighting and signage telling us of their authenticity with wide empty aisles and too much of one thing. Unfortunately, the French Market (especially after its hot mess of recent equally overdone and underdone renovations) is more of the second with chunks of the Lexington Market’s structural and place-based issues to solve, but I do believe that it is due for its renaissance. However, it has always seemed to me that the job of French Market director may require someone with the letter “S” on his or her undershirt. Last time I checked, I believe that the job included: maintaining a significant number of historical buildings for the city,  being landlord to the uptown side of the Pontalba building/apartments, overseeing the anarchistic artist and reader colony space in Jackson Square, recruiting and serving the permanent storefront tenants from Jackson Square to Ursuline, and creating and managing events constantly. Ad oh yeah- somehow revitalize the 2 open shed markets at the Barracks end so that locals will come too. Honestly, having watched the last few eras of FM leadership closely, it seems that these open sheds take up 75% of the time and goodwill in that job, while supplying little of the income. What must be understood by the FM board and city officials is that these sheds are now difficult to access for most downtown residents, especially with no quality public transportation. And now with the management of the linear Crescent Park also on their to-do list, I’d say that the sheds and the park are one big problem all on their own, but also the most likely path to winning the hearts and minds of locals and savvy tourists too.

In addition, the massive size and varied uses of the French Market district presents a very different set of spatial problems and possible solutions than what was possible for the small D.C. Eastern or even its slightly more appropriate D.C. sister, the newly fabulous Union Market or any number of others that I or others have visited in the last two decades. The bad history of the last 40 years at the French Market has also meant that people actually have a negative perception, not just a neutral perception of this space and working on those sheds a little at a time is too little to change that to positive. The very serious lack of nearby farm production also needs to be acknowledged and means that simply signaling that local goods are welcome to be sold will not be enough to have enough on hand. And lastly, what to do with the dozens and dozens of vendors who exist there presently? Incentivize a product change or focus on encouraging them to move on to storefronts to make way for new ideas?

One can compare the French Market to the St. Roch Market to see how different their outcomes and the work to make it so. And yet, even with the small footprint and limited uses needed for St. Roch, look how many millions the city had to spend and how much time it has taken to just get to someone leasing it, much less actually successfully filling it with dynamic retail operator, and still, no grocery or low-income component.

from the original post:

Consultants, of course, also aim at the currently totally un-yuppified food selections, in which each baker (there are seven) has the same yellow cakes smothered in colorful oily frostings, and where there is more fried food than exotic fruit. But here, too, lingers the danger of eliminating the authentic Baltimore grit, with specialties like pigs’ feet, freshly cut veal liver (“baby beef”) that can only be had here or in some of the Asian supermarkets out in the County. Most famously and maybe most Baltimore, of course, is Faidley’s, with its seafood, oysters and crabs and, most importantly, the Baltimore crab-cakes, which are shipped on demand nationwide.

Discussions about the Lexington Market quickly touch nerves, depending on with whom one speaks, because the market serves various needs and maybe evokes even more aspirations. There are those who love its gruff authenticity and old fashioned food choices, there are those who use the market for their daily shopping because adjacent neighborhoods to the west have scarcely any stores, and then there is a growing number of people who think that the market surely doesn’t live up to its potential and needs a major re-set. Community Architect: The Future of Public Markets and the Case of the Lexington Market in Baltimore.

Mardi Gras Costume House

Link to a great picture on nola.com this week of my pal Tracy Thomson standing in her studio. Her gorgeous hats, potholders, bags (and more) are available daily at Dutch Alley Cooperative, a local artist cooperative found in the French Quarter (Dumaine at the river). The rumor is that if you check in with her early enough in the year, you might just be able to get on her list to purchase a unique Mardi Gras costume designed and hand sewn by Tracy herself. Tracy has also vended at JazzFest in the Contemporary Crafts area for the last 20 years and was one of my premier Festivus vendors for the five years that we ran that market in the mid 2000s.

Mardi Gras Costume House | NOLA.com.

kabukihats.com