Foodways

'Old-School' Food Shopping Feels New As U.S. Cities Revive Public Markets

  • Cleveland Ohio's West Side Market began in 1840 as an open air market on land donated by Josiah Barber and Richard Lord, who were two of the first property owners and mayors of the city's oldest neighborhood. The market was renovated in 2004.
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    Cleveland Ohio's West Side Market began in 1840 as an open air market on land donated by Josiah Barber and Richard Lord, who were two of the first property owners and mayors of the city's oldest neighborhood. The market was renovated in 2004.
    Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces
  • Today, the Cleveland West Side Market is a space for 100 vendors opportunities to sell and connect with the local community and tourists.
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    Today, the Cleveland West Side Market is a space for 100 vendors opportunities to sell and connect with the local community and tourists.
    Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces
  • Lexington Market in Baltimore, Md., is more than 200 years old. General John Eager Howard, who fought in the American Revolution, donated the land for the market to the city.
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    Lexington Market in Baltimore, Md., is more than 200 years old. General John Eager Howard, who fought in the American Revolution, donated the land for the market to the city.
    Lexington Market
  • After a fire destroyed the old Lexington Market in Baltimore 1949, the city rebuilt it. Today, the market houses 140 merchants and developers are preparing it for another major renovation.
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    After a fire destroyed the old Lexington Market in Baltimore 1949, the city rebuilt it. Today, the market houses 140 merchants and developers are preparing it for another major renovation.
    Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces
  • Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. was completed in 1873 and designed by German-born architect Adolf Cluss.
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    Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. was completed in 1873 and designed by German-born architect Adolf Cluss.
    Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces
  • The Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. is 137 years old and attracts thousands of shoppers and vendors, rain or shine.
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    The Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. is 137 years old and attracts thousands of shoppers and vendors, rain or shine.
    Project for Public Spaces
  • Ivy Maynor is a vendor inside Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. Public markets support local businesspeople who otherwise could be outsold by corporate markets and warehouse establishments.
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    Ivy Maynor is a vendor inside Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. Public markets support local businesspeople who otherwise could be outsold by corporate markets and warehouse establishments.
    Karen Castillo Farfán/NPR
  • Merchants bring fruits and homemade jellies and jams from local establishments to Eastern Market to provide customers with fresh options and personal service.
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    Merchants bring fruits and homemade jellies and jams from local establishments to Eastern Market to provide customers with fresh options and personal service.
    Karen Castillo Farfán/NPR
  • Oxbow Public Market in Napa, Calif., opened in 2007 and was designed to blend in with the surrounding architecture.
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    Oxbow Public Market in Napa, Calif., opened in 2007 and was designed to blend in with the surrounding architecture.
    Courtesy of the Project for Public Spaces

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One hundred years ago, before Walmart and Whole Foods and Albertson's and Kroger, grocery shopping was a very different experience.

Many American city dwellers flocked to the indoor public markets — huge, high-ceilinged halls lined with vendors hawking everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to full-service meat and fish counters.

Some were centrally located, like Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. and West Side Market in Cleveland. Seattle's Pike Place Market, now 105 years old, is still going strong. But smaller neighborhood public markets also thrived, as did roadside stands in the summer.

Over time, though, the brightly lit supermarket, with aisles of already packaged goods, emerged as a more convenient option for mid-century America's harried housewives. And in many cities, the old public markets were demolished.

But now there's a reversal, as urbanites and developers keen on fresh food and a more personable shopping experience rediscover the public markets and revive them. As we've reported, farmers markets are proliferating with impressive speed, and the old indoor markets are getting facelifts.

In Washington, D.C., the old Centre Market reopened this month as Union Market, featuring high-end vendors selling everything from homemade kimchee to smoked fish. Some towns, like Napa, Calif., are building indoor public markets from scratch.

"What you can see is that we're starting to move back to the market city model," says Brendan Crain, a spokesman for the Project for Public Spaces, which this month hosted the 8th International Public Markets Conference in Cleveland. "Supermarkets are not going away, but there's a lot more variety now."

Have a look at the slideshow for glimpse of public markets, then and now.

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