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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A fire raged through a historic building in the nation's capital last night leaving half of the 134-year-old landmark gutted. Now this was not one of the grand monuments or vast museums that make up the Washington D.C. that is the nation's capital. The building that burnt was a key part of a neighborhood, a market that was special to many including commentator Bonny Wolf.

BONNY WOLF: Last night, I watched my house burn. I stood outside in the chilly dark with countless neighbors and saw flames leap through the roof of Washington, D.C.'s Eastern Market. The magnificent Italianate brick building with its soaring ceilings, cast iron trusses and bulls eye windows has not shut its doors since 1873. Until today.

As many around me said it was like a death. Like all public markets, this one is the town center, the village green. It's where neighbors meet and children play. It's where shoppers go daily to see if the springtime-only shad and the first summer tomatoes are in yet.

At the market, we know the vendors and they know our children. It's a family affair - for them and for us.

When I moved to Washington 20 years ago, I took one look at the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill and knew this was the right neighborhood for my young family. I saw the stalls filled with fruits and vegetables, beautiful meats and poultry, cookies and cakes. I watched as people lined up for fried oysters and blueberry pancakes at Market Lunch. I saw neighbors talking to each other and vendors giving bananas to children they'd known since they were born.

By the time my son was 10, he - like most neighborhood children - worked for the farmers who come to the market on weekends. It felt old fashioned - in the best way.

The 19th century was the golden age of the public market. Then came supermarkets.

Some markets stood their ground - Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place Market in Seattle, the West Side Market in Cleveland and Lexington Market in Baltimore.

In 1992, San Francisco turned the 19th century ferry building and the plaza outside into a market, a few years after an earthquake pulled down the freeway above. It's a fabulous market full of color and people.

Some cities, sadly, built new ones as commercial tourist attractions not real food markets - Fanueil Hall in Boston and Baltimore's Harborplace come to mind. Real public food markets are not for tourists. They're for the people in the neighborhood who need chicken feet, collard greens or a loaf of fresh bread.

The non-profit Project for Public Spaces has helped hundreds of cities improve the public markets they have or start new ones. That's because urban planners know people like to live in a place where they can easily get fresh local food.

I've heard markets get credit for successful urban renewal. They certainly help support small farmers - and in these days of food recalls, I'm glad I know where my spinach comes from.

When I went to Eastern Market this morning, there were throngs of people. D.C.'s Mayor Fenty was there, promising to rebuild. People were crying and hugging the vendors. Everyone was talking about raising money.

I got a call from my grown son in New York. Who as a boy had sold strawberries and cucumbers, asparagus and apples every Saturday at the Eastern Market. His voice was shaky. He said I can't believe it. People at work think it's so strange that I care about this. But Mom, I grew up at the market.

Like all of us standing outside this morning, he thinks of it as home - as much as I do.

SIEGEL: Bonny Wolf is the author of "Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab cakes, Bunt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories." She lives on Capitol Hill.

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