The View From the South Hall

A fresh-food merchant describes effects of the closure of Seventh Street SE on the indoor market merchants

Eastern Market, view of the farmer line. File Photo: Andrew Lightman

After the Eastern Market fire, emergency legislation was passed to close the 200 block of 7th Street to accommodate the non-food vendors. This was the right thing to do. The non-food vendors could not set up next the Eastern Market building with all the construction going on, for obvious safety reasons.

When the Merchants left the East Hall and moved back to Eastern Market, the street remained closed, even though the non-food vendors had all their pre fire space available to them.

When the construction of Hine started the 300 block of 7th was also closed. This was to accommodate Mike’s [Sunday flea market manager Michael Berman] and Carol’s [Saturday flea market manager Carol Wright] need for vending space for their non-food vendors. This again was the right thing to do.

The Eastern Market non-food vendors now have three times the space they had pre-fire. The natatorium plaza is twice the size of the North Hall plaza and the 200 block of 7th street with vending on each side is twice the space of the Eastern Market vending along the building, thus tripling the non-food vending space.

The food merchants have struggled to keep our customers for these last three years, knowing that the non-food vendors desperately needed the space to run their businesses. The fresh food merchants have been severely damaged in this process. We have held on thinking that finally the street would open and we could try to rebuild our businesses.

Our valued customers have been tremendous in their effort to shop at the Market through these difficult times. Eventually over these years, with their shopping experience being so difficult that many have sadly stopped shopping at Eastern Market. It is difficult to ask customers to spend considerable time driving around trying to find a parking space, then walking 2, 3, or 4 blocks to the Market to shop, then finally walking 2, 3, or 4 blocks back to their cars carrying heavy grocery bags. We just can’t get enough customers to go through this process.

Eastern Market was supposed to by legislation be a primarily fresh food market, with complimentary non-food vendors. The non-food vendors are constantly being recruited to fill the vacancies of those who leave. These vendors can just pick up their tents and either close up, or vend some other place better to vend. The merchants can’t just move their businesses so easily. Eastern Market is seriously out of balance. It is very difficult to sell fresh foods when access to the Market is so severely restricted and now there is the loss of all the parking on 7th Street. With so many new vendors parking in the immediate areas surrounding Eastern Market, thus making parking anywhere near the Market, a challenge for customers. We are encapsulated and failing as a fresh food market.

This is very depressing to me, that I can’t build or even keep my customers, no matter how hard I try. With the loss of accessibility and the loss of the parking on 7th Street, I don’t see a good outcome if the street is not reopened. Our customers are just amazing, and I am thankful every day for their continued support through these trying times. I appreciate the extra effort each customer goes through to shop at our beloved Eastern Market.

I think all the community members should know the serious predicament the fresh food merchants are in, and understand the serious hardship the street closure has caused the merchants. Eastern Market is the oldest fresh food market in continual use in the country. I hope it continues for many years.

There is no need for any outside vendor to lose as place to vend at the market. If management were to stop advertising for new vendors, then normal attrition would get the street open. The inside merchants have about 80 workers whose jobs at risk. Presently when it snows, rains, or the street is not needed because of low vendor turnout, and there is enough space for all the vendors on their traditional vending areas, the street could be opened. During these snowy and rainy days many customers do not shop for fresh food because of the lack of accessibility to the market. To walk on a rainy or snowy day with bags of groceries is not a pleasant shopping experience. Not opening the street on these days is a waste of a valuable asset that is desperately needed by fresh food merchants, and would not displace any outside vendors.

The merchants are in a precarious position. Management has an opposing position on street closure. We are in negotiations with management for a lease. Some merchants feel uncomfortable with this situation. Flyers on our counters to inform the community of our position have been ordered removed by management. The community needs to be informed of all the facts and opinions, so they can make an informed and educated decision on the future of Eastern Market. This should not be a rushed decision. There needs to be enough time for the whole community to be informed.

Do you think the merchants would be complaining if business was good? Do you think the outside vendors would be continually leaving and constantly being recruited by management to fill the empty spaces, if business was so great for them? Do you think we should explore what has happened to other fresh food markets in other areas when they become encapsulated by non-food vendors? Do you think a study is needed and appropriate?

I feel very strongly that Eastern Market is headed for failure. The fresh food merchants and the non-food vendors need to be balanced, which would benefit all of us. Over vending hurts food merchants but also the non-food vendors. Too many non-food vendors competing for the non-food dollars hurts the individual non-food vendor sales and income.

I represent the merchants in the South Hall on EMCAC. I do not want Eastern Market to fail on my watch. I just can’t just stand by and do nothing. I don’t want the community to say years from now “what happened to Eastern Market.” The community needs to be informed and educated about Eastern Market, with a free flow of information and ideas in a non-rushed manner. There is too much at risk. We need to get this right. When the community is fully informed, they will be able to make an educated decision. Let’s get together and make this work for all at Eastern Market.

Bill Glasgow is the owner of Union Meats in the South Hall at Eastern Market, where he has been working since 1961. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Minor edits have been made for clarity and style.