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Why can't we have a public market like Cleveland's?
I made a quick escape to Cleveland this weekend and kept running into natives who were astounded that someone would come from Chicago just for kicks. I was on a mission, however, with a number of things to check off my list: cocktails at the magnificent Velvet Tango Room (check), National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame (check), and a Saturday-morning dive into the West Side Market.
Clevelanders are too modest. They have a beautiful, year-round, historic indoor market packed with independent butchers, bakers, candy makers, cheese shops, fishmongers, produce vendors, and specialty shops. It's almost too staggering to wrap your head around in one visit, and damn near impossible to leave without bags and bags of good stuff to eat.
Small example: I had no intention of stockpiling olives, but I was snared by the display of stuffed fruit at Rita's, a 43-year-old stall
specializing in preserved fruit, vegetables, and sauces in one form or another. Proprietress Renee began plying me with samples of some of her
30 varieties of stuffed olives
On Saturday morning the market was jammed with people. Even in this economy, if a midsize rust-belt city can support a place like that, there's no reason Chicago can't. I've said it before: Chicago can never seriously consider itself a world-class food city until it builds a market like this. Why can't we have a public market like Cleveland's?
Mike Sula, Chicago
We did, once upon a time. Unfortunately, it was torn down in 1857. You
couldn't beat the location, though
As the date suggests, however, public markets in Chicago and a lot of other places are a thing of the past. That's not to say the ones still around aren't cool. I haven't been to the West Side Market in Cleveland, but I've been to public markets in other cities, and shopping in them is way more fun than squeezing oranges at Dominick's. The butchers in their stained aprons, the old-fashioned displays you just don't see stuff like that any more. No doubt that explains the West Side Market's success in Cleveland. The place could only survive in a town that's 150 years behind the times.
OK, cheap shot. But the fact is, public markets are a throwback. From what I can tell, there are two kinds: (1) funky old places that have been around for decades that's what you saw in Cleveland, and what I saw at Pike Place Market in Seattle and the Farmers Market in LA; and (2) new (or newish) markets in towns like New York and San Francisco, where the food will make you salivate but the prices will make you choke.
So that's my skeptic's take on things. But you know what, Mike? My inner romantic sides with you. I'm not one of your food obsessives, but I cheerfully admit public markets are a blast. Where else could you see a whole side of beef being butchered? Public markets aren't all that practical, for reasons we'll get to in a minute. But neither is living in the big city, come to that. Getting a public market started here would mean rolling a big rock up a steep hill, and the chances the thing would thrive are scarily low. Then again, there were guys standing in this general vicinity in 1810 going: You want to start a town here? This place is a swamp.
Enough with the preliminaries. I talked to Larry Lund, a Chicago consultant who's one of the leading authorities (no kidding) on public markets in the U.S. Here's what I found out:
Could a public market succeed in Chicago now? It's possible. This might be the year for the Cubs, too. But consider the obstacles:
So that's me, Mr. Cold Water. But I would have tried to talk Paul Newman out of an acting career, too. Would a public market in Chicago be a long shot? No doubt about it. Would it (well, could it) be fun, eco, a civic asset, etc.? You won't get any argument here. Would it be worth going to a ton of trouble to cause one to come into existence? Well, Mike, that's up to you.
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