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. 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.

As for our French Market, I have a personal history with this space, as a resident who was sent to the market to shop for my family table, and as a place I developed 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 as ECOnomics Institute then and Market Umbrella now and operating its markets as Crescent City Farmers Market, became involved in its operation. 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 markets.”

Which fit what he had already been thinking. So we embarked on this relationship with the French Market to revive it as a place for locals, growers and eaters.

It helped that Richard and I were two locals who had not written off the French Market, and continued to argue in our circles that it was the place that immigrants still 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 diversity 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. More on that in Part 3).

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:

• Weekday morning/lunch markets are the hardest. We knew that, having run a few of these. Tuesday market opened at Uptown Square in April 2000, and we also had attempted a Loyola University market at lunch on Thursdays. Still, we felt that weekday had to be done as we were still committed to our Magazine street Saturday market as the only flagship Saturday market we operated, which I am not sure we ever made clear to others.  For whatever reason, we believed that Saturday’s market was 700 Magazine and were pretty firm on that at that point.

• We were also committing to helping the FM staff go through a charette process 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 had 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. (No public trash talking allowed, 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 (yes, will explain in Part 3).

• That it takes 18 months to 2 years to build a successful market with its own culture and energy. 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 could focus our support in the national field of markets to help us develop this market.

• We couldn’t anticipate when it would happen, but at some point bad weather or production delays would interrupt event planning and the usual spike attendance that happened around fruit season and some holidays. In a weird twist, our markets had few of these from spring 2003 to summer of 2005.

• We had long 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 market 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. (more on this in Part 3)

• 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 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. As a result, many dropped out, but we had a long list of waiting vendors and we developed a new system that required new vendors 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.

Things were looking okay by August of 2005. And  then, as we say here:

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 had gone to Newman together! New Orleans way less than 6 degrees of separation

 

Part 2 soon: 2005-2010: What we decided to do about our community, our markets, the French Market, and the overall regional recovery.

 

 

 

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French Market St. Joseph’s Day Altar activities

On Saturday (March 19), visitors to the French Market on North Peters Street in the French Quarter can stop by a St. Joseph’s Altar and learn more about the feast day and tradition. Along with viewing the altar, visitors can learn about New Orleans Sicilian heritage, listen to music and watch performances.

Here is a lineup of the day’s events:

    • 10:30 a.m. – Rosanna Giacona, a Beauregard-Keyes Historic House tour guide, will talk about her Sicilian heritage, and the Sicilian heritage of New Orleans.
    • 11-12:15 p.m. – Oompah D’Italia will feature Julie Council playing traditional Italian music.
    • 12:30 p.m. – During, “St. Joseph’s Day Altars – Then and Now,” attendees can listen to Liz Williams director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum talk about the history of the altars.

N.O. St. Joseph Day altars pop up in the oddest places

N.O. St. Joseph Day altars pop up in the oddest places

On March 19, the faithful and the curious go on pilgrimages, visiting altars at homes, churches and Catholic schools. Some of those pilgrimages, however, will bring folks to decidedly nontraditional sites.

  • 1 p.m. – “Sicilian Roots at the French Market,” will feature a conversation with the Portera Sisters, who built the markets altar.
  • 2-3:30 p.m. – Palermo Import/Export Band will perform.
  • 3-3:30 p.m. – The Muff-a-Lottas will perform.

Complicated Life

Well I woke this morning with a pain in my neck
A pain in my heart and a pain in my chest
I went to the doctor and the good doctor said
“I gotta slow down your life or you’re gonna be dead”

Cut out the struggle and strife
It only complicates your life

Well I cut down women, I cut out booze
I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes
I stopped going to work, I stopped reading the news
I sit and twiddle my thumbs ‘cos I got nothing to do

Minimal exercise, to help uncomplicate my life
Gotta stand and face it life is so complicated
You gotta get away from the complicated life, son
Life is overrated, life is complicated, must alleviate this complicated life

Cut out the struggle and strife
It’s such a complicated life

Like old mother Hubbard, I’ve got nothin’ in the cupboard
Got no dinner and I got no supper
Holes in my shoes, I got holes in my socks
I can’t go to work ‘cos I can’t get a job

The bills are rising sky high, it’s such a complicated life
Gotta stand and face it, life is so complicated
Gotta get away from the complicated life, son
Life is overrated, life is complicated, must alleviate this complicated life

Life is overrated, life is complicated, Life must get away this complicated life
Life is overrated, life is complicated, must alleviate this complicated life
Gotta get away from the complicated life, son
Gotta get away from the complicated life

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) and is a market 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
creating and managing events constantly. (This seems simple, but one question I always have is why they hold events on the big days like French Quarter Festival and why not instead spend their time on driving traffic there once those events are over and just ride that wave of big days with little programming and lots of amenities available like available seating, well-stocked bathrooms and helpful FQ ambassadors on hand.)

and 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 the location of these sheds is now and will remain out-of-the-way for residents, and with no access to public transportation that fact can be deadly for robust day vendor sales if not addressed directly.

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 uses needed for St. Roch, look how many millions and how much time it has taken to just get to someone leasing it, much less actually successfully filling it with dynamic retail operators!

The good news is that new leadership at the French Market has the energy and the experience as a storefront business owner to understand and address many of the issues that remain to be solved at the French Market, but will still need time and patience to get his board, staff and neighbors to understand the nature of open space, day vendors and the shoppers/visitors that they might attract. And the entire team will need to add to their skill set because there is a different level and type of attention that must be paid to the engineering of activity and products here than was needed in the golden age of American public markets or even that has proven to be successful in public market projects in other cities. Finally, as a FQ resident, I want it to be identified with my neighborhood and to underscore the type of cultural qualities that we hold in high esteem.

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.

Meetings for potential vendors for CCFM @ French Market

(From Market Umbrella):

As you may have heard, Market Umbrella will be starting another year-round Crescent City Farmers Market in the French Market this fall, slated to open Wednesday, October 15 from 2-6pm. To this end, we are currently in the process of accepting new vendor applications for this exciting new Wednesday afternoon market.

We will be hosting 2 meetings for farmers, fishers, and food producers interested in becoming vendors with us: Wednesday, Sept 3 at 5:30pm at the CCFM offices (200 Broadway, suite 107) and Saturday, Sept 6 at noon, in the Saturday market space at 700 Magazine Street. This meeting will inform prospective new vendors about the market and the process for applying and vendor selection.

If you cannot make this meeting, but are interested in becoming a vendor, applications will be accepted online at crescentcityfarmersmarket.org’s New Vendor page.

Applications will be accepted until September Sept 15 at 5pm.

Please pass this along to any farmers, fishers, and food producers in your network!

Thank you for your help. We look forward to bringing the best local food to the French Market.

Please direct any questions or comments to markets@marketumbrella.org

Crescent City Farmers Market

Tuesday Market – Uptown New Orleans
9am – 1pm, 200 Broadway St., at the River

Thursday Market – Mid-City New Orleans
3-7pm, 3700 Orleans Ave., at the Bayou

Saturday Market – Downtown New Orleans
8am – Noon, 700 Magazine St., at Girod St.

Weekly farmers market coming to French Market

First thing to share: I was the Deputy Director of the city’s original open-air market organization for some time, including back when we opened the Wednesday market at the French Market in 2002 or 2003 ( I never remember which)…
Here is what I wrote on FB about this news:
well.the old footprint of CCFM is restored completely, 9 years after the federal levee breaks took it apart. I certainly wish the new leadership well with this endeavor, and like the FM Director Richard McCall we had back in the day when I worked for CCFM, they have an enthusiastic director at FM to assist. There is no doubt that opening a true farmers market in the old shed market can be very tricky (as we learned in 2002? or 2003? when we opened it originally), but more places for regional producers is a valiant effort to put forth. The work required to find and keep the flow of people coming will be substantial, but finally it will be up to folks downtown and regional producers to commit in order for it to thrive.

Weekly farmers market coming to French Market | News | The New Orleans Advocate.