By SARAH DORSEY
Photo by Adina Young
The district’s popular Eastern Market on a week day
When a three-alarm fire engulfed one hall of D.C.’s historic Eastern Market this spring, Mayor Adrian Fenty promised to rebuild it. What is less well-known is how a local non-profit helped keep its vendors afloat until a temporary structure could open.
The Capitol Hill Community Foundation sold t-shirts, held happy hours, and collected individual donations, and gave the money to the merchants. They printed posters for DC businesses to display that said, simply, “Our market – more than a building.”
The Eastern Market has been a beloved Capitol Hill institution for 134 years. Before the fire in April, vendors had been selling fresh food, flowers, and arts and crafts there continuously since 1873. The market is a neighborhood meeting place and a venue for jazz, blues, bluegrass and klezmer music.
“The Eastern Market is sort of like a city hall – a town square for Capitol Hill,” said Gary Peterson, Eastern Market Steering Committee chair of the foundation. “For many customers, the merchants are just like family.”
Stalls quickly sprouted outside the building in the weeks after the fire. But some merchants were having trouble making ends meet without the amenities they enjoyed in the market’s destroyed South Hall.
By mid-August, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation had raised $385,000 – most of it in individual donations – for the market. The group bought tables, scales, and refrigerated trucks for merchants who couldn’t afford them. Since business slumped a good deal after the fire, the Community Foundation even gave small grants to help pay the vendors’ mortgage payments, and helped them to find other jobs until the temporary structure was finished.
Alfonso Morales, an urban planning professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said open-air markets are crucial to the health of urban centers.
“The Eastern Market is a case-in-point,” he said. “It has incubated new businesses, fostered the socialization of new immigrants, and spurred entrepreneurship for over 100 years.”
Morales said that places like the Eastern Market continue to thrive despite official neglect, partially because they are flexible and provide a niche for certain groups to thrive in this country.
“A hundred years ago, the government thought public market were very important… the federal census even used to use ‘street vendor’ or ‘peddler’ as occupational categories,” Morales said.
Today, that’s no longer the case – but open-air markets continue to thrive because they’re “a flexible and stable way to do business,” he said.
“When a consumer demand or product, such as organic produce, arises, storefront businesses don’t accommodate it [as quickly] because they have too much existing investment. But street vendors can.”
Morales said that places like the Eastern Market also meet an important social need. “There are always some new immigrants unable to work in traditional industry, so they do vending,” he said. “In Chicago, for example, it was Eastern European Jews, then African-Americans, then Latinos. It’s an indicator of social mobility – they come, make money, get their kids educated, then move on.”
As for the Eastern Market, Gary Peterson said there is also a good deal of continuity among the vendors.
“The Glasgows have been there for 50 years,” Peterson said. “The Calomiris have been there for oh, 43 years. Mel Inman has been selling there probably 22 years. And the Bowers, who sell Bowers cheese – they’ve been there for three generations.”