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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Public Markets in New Orleans

Just like the French Quarter itself, the style of the public markets in New Orleans has more to do with the Spanish and American eras than the French. In 1763, when the Spanish gained the tiny French colony, the population of New Orleans was only around 3,500 and no permanent market building yet existed, although open-air commerce had long operated at the river. In 1791, the city’s Spanish administrators built a market at present-day Decatur and Saint Ann, after first attempting one at the corner of Chartres and Dumaine. The Halle des Boucheries  –  the Meat Market – erected in 1813 still exists (where the market’s longest tenant,  Café du Monde has operated since 1862), accompanied for a few decades by architect Henry Benjamin Latrobe’s water works and by market buildings built in the years 1822-1872.

design-of-a-pier-to-cover-the-suction-pipe-of-the-pump-for-supplying-water-to-the-city-of-new-orleans-1346

A 1819 architectural rendering depicting the design of a pier to cover the suction pipe of the pump for supplying water to the City of New Orleans by Benjamin Latrobe who helped design the US Capitol and is considered the father of American professional architecture.  Sadly, Latrobe died of yellow fever while building this system.

This area stretching along the river at the “back” of the Quarter became known as the French Market in the 19th century, undergoing a renovation in the 1930s thanks to the New Deal, again in the 1970s and in 2005/ 2006, each renovation further erasing more of the original building layout and any visible reminders of their use. Luckily, the number of descriptions devoted to the market by visiting dignitaries still combine for a detailed and lively view. Latrobe wrote in his journal in 1819:

“Along the levee, as far as the eye could reach to the West and to the market house to the East were ranged two rows of market people, some having stalls or tables with a tilt or awning of canvass, or a parcel of Palmetto leaves. The articles to be sold were not more various than the sellers … I cannot suppose that my eye took in less than 500 sellers and buyers, all of whom appeared to strain their voices, to exceed each other in loudness….”

And another in 1874:

“New Orleans’ French Market had more tropical merchandise, including bananas, pineapples, coconuts, oranges, and limes as well as an amazing variety of shellfish, including crab, lobster, shrimps, and “enormous oysters, many of which it would certainly be of necessity to cut up into four mouthfuls, before eating,” reported Charles Dickens in All the Year Round.

Since that first market, another 33 were to join it by the 1940s. This gave New Orleans the largest market system in the U.S., with only Baltimore as a serious competitor, according to author Helen Tangires in her landmark book “Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America.”[1] The list of the city’s markets is a history and geography lesson of its neighborhoods and civic leaders: St. Mary, Poydras, Washington, Carrollton, Ninth Street, Soraparu, Magazine, Dryades, Claiborne, Treme, St. Bernard, French, Port, Jefferson, Second Street, Keller, LeBreton, St. Roch, St. John, Ewing, Prytania, Mehle, Memory, Suburban, Rocheblave, Maestri, Delamore, McCue, Lautenschlaeger, Zengel, Guillotte, Doullut, Behrman and Foto. Local market historian Sally K. Reeves [2] wrote, “ These well-dispersed centers of food and society played an essential role in the city’s cultural, economic and political life. They also generated their share of crime, grafts, rule defiance and contract disputes.”

Only some of these buildings remain (around 15 as of 2005) with only two still operating as city-owned public market buildings: the French Market and the St. Roch Market, both down river of Canal Street, and only a few blocks from each other. The St. Roch Market escaped the auction block in the 1930s through neighborhood pressure and was recently reborn as a controversial food hall after Hurricane Katrina. Before 2005, it spent  decades under private, half-hearted use that closed off most of the building to use. Besides those two, the only other that operates in some manner close to its beginnings is what had been the St. Bernard Market and is now a grocery store known as Circle Food, also only a few blocks from the others. Walking through its colonnade, one notes its practical market design and appreciates the superb retail location at the intersection of Claiborne and Saint Bernard Avenues. This store serves the 6th, 7th and 8th ward Creole community primarily, but also shoppers across the region looking for foods known to New Orleans families of every ethnicity. From the current Circle Food site: “coons, rabbits, pig ears & lips, turkey necks & wings, ham hocks, chicken feet, cow tongue, lunch tongue, beef kidney, oxtails, and special fresh cuts of veal including veal seven steaks.”

In her 2005 University of New Orleans thesis on food and markets, researcher Nicole Taylor traced each remaining public market building in the city and its current use. Some of the buildings have even retained their WPA-era plaque to remind passersby of its market history.

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LAUTENSCHLAEGER MARKET  Photo: John W. Murphey © Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

She noted in her analysis, “The changing values in American planning and development did affect New Orleans, only more slowly. The Depression years brought change in New Orleans with some large projects conducted by the WPA, but the markets were not replaced, only renovated. While the rest of the country was beginning to demolish old neighborhoods and replace the old homes and storefront businesses with modern buildings, high rises and highway systems in the name of progress, New Orleans’ operation of municipal public markets continued[3].

Finally, the 20th century collapse of the public market system in the U.S. assisted by the emergence of refrigeration and the supermarket came to New Orleans and the city began to sell off its magnificent markets, leaving its vendors to an uncertain fate. Many set up permanent stores nearby,  with some even continuing their original business to this day. But not until the modern farmers market revival arrived in New Orleans in 1995 with the first open-air Crescent City Farmers Market did significant numbers of farmers, fishers and foragers begin to trickle back from outlying parishes to once again sell their goods. The CCFM organizers even spirited away the last few farmers still selling at the old French Market, leaving New Orleans’ original market only suitable for tourists. In 2003 however, CCFM arranged for the return of farmers to the French Market by offering a regular Wednesday market in the 1930s-era Farmers’ Market shed. The French Market Corporation, the private/public corporation that has formally managed the market district for the city since the early 1930s, also began to search for other artisanal entrepreneurs to operate permanent stalls on either side of the aisle. The effort has not been entirely successful in luring locals back but it is important to note that besides the farmers market on Wednesdays, the French Market now includes a local artists co-op, respected  cooperative and healthy  cafes, a thriving artist colony around Jackson Square, a cooking demonstration stage and regular cultural events on site.

The upshot is that unlike most other American cities, New Orleanians can participate in the same public market tasks as previous generations, including at the same spaces used for that activity since the city was new.

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The 1878 Hardee map of New Orleans, showing many of the markets.

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A pic that historian Richard Campanella posted of a 1930s renovation design idea of the St. Roch market that was never used.

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The interior of St. Roch Market after the WPA renovation

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Photographer Roy Guste shot the inside of the St. Roch as the city began to renovate it in 2012.

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The Saturday Crescent City Farmers Market in its new location as of October 2016. It spent exactly 21 years at the corner of Magazine and Girod before moving to Julia and Carondelet. These open-air markets only allow producers and harvesters to sell directly; no resellers allowed.

[1] Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003

[2] Author of “Making Groceries: A History of New Orleans Markets.” Louisiana Cultural Vistas 18, no3. Also author of upcoming book on New Orleans public market system.

[3] Taylor, Nicole, “The Public Market System of New Orleans: Food Deserts, Food Security, and Food Politics” (2005). University of New Orleans Theses and Dissertations. Paper 250.

The Crescent City Farmers Market regains its pre-Katrina footprint with their French Market location reopening

Wednesdays 2-6 pm year-round, Ursuline at the River. Share your green with the farmers and fishers at the Green Market and show everyone that the French Quarter ain’t just your grandma’s old neighborhood!

http://www.crescentcityfarmersmarket.org/index.php?page=wednesday-market

The Crescent City Farmers Market Regains Its Pre-Katrina Footprint.

People United for Armstrong Park

2014 Lineup

Food
We at People United for Armstrong Park are excited about the amazing local food options we have put together for Season 6 of Jazz in the Park, which starts September 4, 2014.
Join us at Jazz in the Park and enjoy some delicious food from the following vendors:

Harold’s Barbecue
barbeque chicken, pulled pork, ribs

Chocolate Devil
bacon-wrapped sausages, hamburgers

Direct Select Seafood
fried seafood plates, fried seafood salads

Ninja
yakiniku (garlic ribeye) poboy, shrimp yakisoba (fried noodles), crabstick & cucumber salad, seaweed salad, vegetarian poboy
drinks: iced green tea, cold sake

Mello D’s Catering, LLC
chicken Pasta, Apple Cobbler, Merliton Dressing
sides: white beans, loaded mash potatoes

Lil Dustin’s Italian Ice
Italian Ice in several different flavors and deep fried oreos

A & L Catering Services
crab cake with crawfish sauce, chicken and sausage Jambalaya, shrimp and crawfish fettuccine, seafood sausage (alligator, crawfish and shrimp) on a bun

Ms. Dee’s Catering
red beans and rice, fried chicken, hot dogs and homemade chili, file’ gumbo
sides: french fries, salad

NOLA Foods
ghetto burger, jerk chicken, ribeye steaks, BBQ shrimp

Ms. Ackie’s Meal on Wheels
snowballs, nachos and cheese, yaka-mein and hot tamales.

(2013 post is below and shows how delicate the funding and support for this wonderful series is in constant peril; take a second to write to your council and mayor to let them know how much you enjoy the activities there.)

People United for Armstrong Park needs your help now more than ever to keep the spirit of Congo Square alive!
Jazz in the Park’s future in danger as City fees double: Armstrong Park’s Nola for Life program suspended, musicians cut

Today (10/10), major programming cuts will take effect as the fees imposed on Jazz in the Park by the City of New Orleans double. Most notably, the at-risk trainees of Armstrong Park’s Nola for Life-funded Event Production Program (EPP) will lose hours. Additionally, the 2-4pm musical act has been cancelled and Thursday will be the final second line at Jazz in the Park from 4-5pm. If city fees remain at their new level, organizers say the spring series will only feature one performer per event instead of the four acts that currently perform weekly. Additionally, the event founders (themselves unpaid volunteers) have been forced to cover city fees through a personally-guaranteed emergency line of credit.

Jazz in the Park is produced by People United for Armstrong Park, a volunteer-led Treme-based non-profit now in its second year. Since the spring of 2012, PUfAP has produced 30 free public concerts, featuring more than 100 local performers and bringing over 70,000 residents and tourists into the newly renovated Armstrong Park. In four seasons, PUfAP has trained and hired 20 community members in need, many of them public housing residents, unemployed and with criminal records. All told, Jazz in the Park events provide weekly employment opportunities to over 100 community vendors, musicians and staff.

Fees levied on the free event have increased 100% this year and 1000% from 2012. Sadly, it will be those who depend on their Armstrong Park jobs the most that will pay the greatest toll. “There is no fat to cut,” says Founder Emanuel Lain Jr., “we are cutting into bone at this point.” Jazz in the Park provides its high-quality cultural programming on a bare-bones budget – approximately 80% lower than those of the concerts at Lafayette Square.

Through its community programming, PUfAP has significantly improved the perception and reality of Armstrong Park, Rampart Street and the Treme neighborhood. Their goal is to transform Armstrong Park into a premier hub of the city’s cultural economy by honoring the cultural traditions of Congo Square.

“People United for Armstrong Park has made Armstrong Park a real park instead of an under-used landscaped backdrop for the City’s performing venues. Jazz in the Park brings together such a diverse group of people – it is unlike any other event in the city,” says Treme resident Dabne Whitmore.

 

Commentary from yours truly on The Lens

Public markets were once a dominant feature of New Orleans’ commercial landscape. There were almost three dozen of them, ranging from those still well-known — the French Market and St. Roch, above all — to long-forgotten markets on Poydras, Washington, Carrollton, Ninth Street, Soraparu, Magazine, Dryades, Claiborne, Treme, St. Bernard, Port, Jefferson, Second Street, Keller, LeBreton, St. John, Ewing, Prytania, Mehle, Memory, Suburban, Rocheblave, Maestri, Delamore, McCue, Lautenschlaeger, Zengel, Guillotte, Doulluth, Behrman and Foto.

 
“The city needs to do better” commentary