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Why can't we have a public market like Cleveland's?
Feb. 26, 2009

Dear Cecil:

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 — salami and fennel, garlic, wasabi, chorizo, roast beef, and horseradish-cheddar, a one-of-a-kind corned-beef-and-kraut stuffed Reuben olive, and on and on. Before I knew it I had $28 worth in my shopping bag, and I was scooting off for a pastrami buckwheat crepe down the hall.

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

Cecil replies:

We did, once upon a time. Unfortunately, it was torn down in 1857. You couldn't beat the location, though — State and Randolph, and I don't mean at the corner of State and Randolph, I mean in the middle of the street. The market was on the ground floor, and what passed for City Hall in those days was on the second. The idea was that city officials could keep an eye on the merchants, lest they (the merchants) cheat the public. Since Chicago government's reputation for honesty was no less sterling then than now, this may strike you as a classic fox-guarding-the-henhouse situation. But at least it kept all the crooks in one place.

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:

  • Definitions first. A public market generally has a permanent building, is open year round, sells at retail (some do wholesale business too), and features multiple independent food vendors. That makes it different from ordinary supermarkets on the one hand and seasonal outdoor farmer's markets on the other. An attractive building adds to a market's charm, no question. But it also increases the risk.

  • Towns initially established public markets in the nineteenth century because of worries about chiselers and contamination. Chicago at one point had three markets in the downtown area; two burned down and all were gone by the 1860s. After that the city established market districts that evolved into wholesale centers like the one still in business on Randolph.

  • The last attempt to establish public retail markets here came in the wake of skyrocketing food prices after World War I. The concept: if we could eliminate the middleman, food would be cheap! The reality: No, it wouldn't. Two markets were set up, one near the old Maxwell Street police station, the other on the south side. Both failed within a year. Not long after, A&P-type chain supermarkets began showing up. The Wal-Marts of their day, they drove competing venues out of business. That was it for public markets in Chicago.

  • Not everywhere, though. Lund guesses there may be a hundred public markets still operating around the country. Minneapolis has one; so do Indianapolis and Detroit. Why did these markets survive while ours didn't? Luck was surely part of it, plus (arguably) indulgent ownership. Many markets are publicly owned and don't need to make a profit. The LA Farmers Market is owned by the Gilmore family, which made its pile in oil and apparently just likes markets. A few years ago the family sold part of the land for a fancy real estate development that features crystal chandeliers, red carpets, and marble bathrooms — and that's in the parking deck. But the old market is still there.

Could a public market succeed in Chicago now? It's possible. This might be the year for the Cubs, too. But consider the obstacles:

  • Tough competition. Chains like Jewel and Dominick's sell pretty good products at reasonable prices. If they're too plebeian for you, there's always Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, which sell excellent products at stiff prices. (Yeah, I find the more-organic-than-thou atmosphere at Whole Foods a little offputting too, but I'll say this — the people who work there are into what they do.) The only remaining market niche would appear to be for an ultra-high-end food emporium such as those I mentioned in New York and San Francisco (at Grand Central Market and the Ferry Building Marketplace, respectively), where the produce sellers evidently read bedtime stories to the tomatoes and charge prices to match. But that's not the Chicago way.

  • Few qualified vendors. To make a market work, you need multiple butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers, and so on. Nowadays those types of small, family-owned businesses are scarce.  Setting aside Paulina Market, how many neighborhood butcher shops do you know of today?

  • Expensive land. Twenty years ago you might have been able to find some reasonably priced land for a market on the near west side — good luck with that now. In the late 90s the city tried to establish a public market of sorts at State and Randolph, not far from where a market had stood a century and a half earlier. High land costs, tight quarters, and a lack of parking were among the reasons the projects didn't fly. (My assistant Little Ed also had a minor role as a consultant, which was enough to doom the venture right there.) Even in cities with a tradition of public markets, success is no sure thing. Cleveland, lucky town, has two markets. The West Side Market is hugely popular. The East Side Market, which was built more recently, not so much.

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. 

— Cecil Adams

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