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.

 

 

 

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Home-grown Fruits and Vegetables Uncommon in Early New Orleans

As someone deeply involved in regional food systems, I am always searching for detailed descriptions of earlier food systems wherever I work. Here in my own region of the Gulf Coast, I often find a common misperception that the level of truck farming found in and around the city in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries (due to the large number of Sicilian and German immigrants) was representative of the agricultural system of the earlier colonial eras. However, most accounts I have read indicate that the port was the entry point for much of the food and drink that the region used and plantations were mostly used for growing and exporting commodity crops from the earliest days until the present day, with market crops quite limited.  Therefore, I was gratified to find this passage in Public Spaces, Private Gardens : A History of Designed Landscapes in New Orleans by Lake Douglas:

“The French botanist and explorer Charles-César Robin (ca. 1750–?) discussed his travels in Louisiana, West Florida, and the West Indies between 1802 and 1806 in his three-volume Voyages dans l’intérieur de la Louisiane … (Paris, 1807):

‘The high cost of labor is reflected in the high price of vegetables in the markets, where fish, game and meat are very cheap, these not being the product of much labor. Vegetables are so rare that sometimes they are lacking altogether. In the spring there are no first fruits, although the cold spells are so transient that with a few precautions one would hardly notice the winter. No one knows anything about seed beds, greenhouses or shelter, nor anything at all about the art of vegetable gardening. In the dry periods of summer there are no lettuces or other leafy vegetables, because no one waters or protects the young plants. Notwithstanding the fact that a person near the city can make six, seven, eight, nine, ten piastres a day from the sale of vegetables, not even these exorbitant prices have stimulated anyone to perfect this branch of agriculture. I have examined several of the large vegetable gardens. They are shameful, not to the slaves who cultivate them; they don’t know any better, but to their masters who hardly bother to oversee work outside of the fields. The expense of slave labor on the one hand prevents the introduction of new products, and, on the other, stunts the ingenuity and industry of the masters themselves’  These observations are obviously those of someone well acquainted with horticulture, cultivation techniques, and agricultural economy. They suggest that, well into the nineteenth century, the community itself was not self-sufficient in growing fruits and vegetables and was still dependent upon external supplies for these needs” (italics added).

Ya-Ka-Mein in New Orleans | Southern Foodways Alliance

Sara Roahen is maybe my favorite current New Orleans writer (although Katy Reckdahl, CW Cannon and Bill Lavender are always vying for the top spot, not that any of them care) and here she has written a fantastic history of Old Sober (aka ya-ka-mein), a street food beloved in Creole homes, along second lines and at JazzFest…

Ya-Ka-Mein in New Orleans | Southern Foodways Alliance.

Dreamie Weenies

Listen, I like poor boys and muffalettas. You’ll find me in line at Johnny’s and at Central Grocery often, patiently waiting behind visitors who are nervously practicing saying muffaletta or ordering it dressed without feeling foolish.
But every once in a while, you just want a quick American treat done in a New Orleans way. That’s when I head to North Rampart to get a hot dog at the place next door to Mary’s Hardware’s new location between Orleans and Saint Ann. The owners of Dreamie Weenies are cool guys who take the dog and its surrounding environment seriously. I almost always get a Genchili dog (which I think should be called a GentillyChili) with polish sausage and then only add mustard and ketchup (you get your choice of type of dog and added condiments) as needed. The Genchili comes with their own “creole mix” and homemade chili which add just enough spice and residual flavor to make you want to slow down after each bite to savor.
What works against these guys is that people think of the hot dog as the crappy thing you see in the roller at the gas station or the burnt thing to the side of the grill at your neighborhood bbq, but these are made as meals and should be treated that way. I ain’t no slip of a girl that gets filled up from a latte; I eat food like my Polish and Greek and Cajun peops did before me and even I cannot always finish my Genchili in one setting. So the 8 bucks spent there feeds tummies well, the lovely inside feeds the eye and ears (music is local and lively) and the caring and onsite owners with their homemade ingredients feed the New Orleans soul.
So don’t be a snob- go get a dog done right.

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