It is 7 a.m. on a steel-hued morning in April 2007. Walking up the street from the metro, camera on my back, the smell of ashes and suet wafting in the breeze, I glimpse the devastation. The Eastern Market is a smoldering wreck.
Exhausted firefighters recline on the tailgates of their engines, while their brethren hose down the smoldering roof. Across the street, neighbors and merchants gather, many in tears. Eastern Market, the heart of the tightly knit Capitol Hill community, is gone.
Discovering The Market
I first came to the District in 1993, a graduate student working on my dissertation at the Library of Congress. I settled on Capitol Hill, renting an English basement on Seward Square.
In those days, the Hill was down on its heels. Beautiful historic homes with lush gardens coexisted with homeless encampments, punctuated by ubiquitous piles of trash.
The closest Safeway was a dozen blocks away. Without an automobile, it was a nearly unnavigable distance. Taking a cue from many of my neighbors, I began to shop for groceries at the Eastern Market.
So began a love affair.
Falling in Love
The first thing one noticed walking into the Market in the early 1990’s was the fetid smell of food, produce, meat, fish and trash. In the absence of adequate air conditioning, the odor grew worse in the summer months.
Unlike now, the Market in those days possessed no center aisle. Glancing north from the southern end of the South Hall, the view was obstructed by huge freezers, now housed underground. It was a maze.
In the South Hall, a large meat stall occupied the majority of the south end. A tiny bakery was tucked into the southeast corner. The northeast corner, then as now, housed The Market Lunch, but with less seating, across from a much larger fishmonger.
A pottery studio with a working kiln occupied the upper floors of the Center Hall, above where the bathrooms now sit.
The North Hall was a funky, Afrocentric, non-profit gallery, responsible for the weekend craft and flea markets. On weekends, artisan booths and farmer stands garlanded the Market’s periphery and northern plaza.
However, while architecturally striking, what really distinguished the Market was its merchants, farmers and vendors. It was a chaotic, charming old world venue populated by a cast of colorful characters.
The bakery, a Jewish institution, was helmed by Doris and her brothers Irv and Moe. Once one got past her brusque demeanor, reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, Doris was a charming raconteur.
Next door was a meat counter run by Mark Glasgow. I don’t remember Mark ever having any customers. Mostly, he sat with his elbows on the counter glowering at by-passers.
Mark and Doris were grumpy exceptions. Maria and Chris Calomiris were more the norm. Proprietors of Thomas Calomiris & Sons, the couple always greeted me warmly, asking after my family. Maria, known to all as “Momma,” was a fount of recipes. Her baklava and other Greek foods powered me through many afternoons of writing.
Chris told me stories about selling vegetables in his youth in the metal stalls that still stand behind Union Market, rusted witnesses to a different age. To this day, no child leaves the Calomiris stall without a gifted banana.
The Market was a social hub where one exchanged news with neighbors and shopped with friends. My shopping trips soon turned into a daily ritual. The old Eastern Market taught me the art of “slow shopping.”
While the “Slow Food” movement has received a great deal of press, journalists have yet to turn to their attention to the subject of “slow shopping.”
Most Americans travel anonymously to a supermarket or via the web, where one never has to share more than two to three sentences with another human. Slow Shopping, on the other hand, embeds the purchase of food in a thick social context. In simpler terms, slow shopping is buying what you eat from people that you know. It is an antidote to the demands of this hyper-connected, distracted world, where many cannot walk the streets without gazing at a tiny screen.
To this day, I do the vast majority of my food shopping “slowly” at Eastern Market. I buy cheese from Mike Bowers. Cross examining me on my culinary plans, he unerringly selects the perfect fromage for any occasion. Handing out samples to everyone in line, Mike provides a running commentary on his selections, politics, the Eastern Market and vagaries of modern existence.
“I’m glad to be putting your kids though college,” I joke while Mike rings up my purchases.
Billy Glasgow at Union Meat is my go-to for culinary advice whenever trying a new cut of beef or lamb. His father Bill, who is death to prairie dogs, always narrates his latest hunting adventures.
A devotee of Asian cuisines, I rely on Joanne, the proprietor of Capitol Hill Poultry and Paik Produce for Korean, Japanese and Indian ingredients. Where else can one find kaffir lime or bitter gourd? Certainly not at “Whole Paycheck.”
Members of the Canales clan have tutored me in the mysteries of fine Spanish hams and El Salvadoran delicacies. Their fresh pasta succors my soul, while their cuts of “the other white meat” delight my palate, reminding me of my allegiance to “The Pig.” Angie of Blue Iris, sells me artfully arranged bouquets to decorate my dining room table.
Outside the Market’s doors, I shop with farmers who drive from as far away as Pennsylvania to serve Capitol Hill customers. The Amish show up on Tuesday evenings. While I peruse their produce, we commiserate over the weather, discuss the merits of seasonal planting and chat about my garden. My kitchen is enriched by the prizes I purchase such as duck eggs, ugly heirlooms, seedless yellow watermelon, oyster mushrooms or fresh garlic.
Always more than a building to its patrons, the Market was and is the collective gestalt of its merchants, vendors and famers. The gutting of the facility in 2007 threatened to destroy this human ecosystem. Buildings can be rebuilt. Communities, however, in the absence of a center, can disintegrate.
To save the Market, we had to save its businesses.
Saving The Market
Efforts to save the Market began the morning after the fire. Watching the embers smolder, then-Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells (D) secured a promise from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to rebuild. A second conversation with Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF) President Nicky Cymrot launched an intense public campaign to save the Market’s businesses. Capitol Hill residents donated over $400,000 and tremendous amounts of volunteer time in the effort managed by CHCF.
Having grown up in a small family business, Mayor Fenty intimately understood the importance of continuity to such operations. Fulfilling his pledge to rebuild, the city encouraged the South Hall merchants to operate on Seventh Street. Later, the District constructed a temporary facility, a large air-conditioned tent, across the street to house them. There they remained for two years.
Councilmember Wells was Fenty’s partner, navigating millions in renovation funds through the council. His staff and volunteers from the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee (EMCAC) monitored the Market renovation attentively to ensure historic fidelity and operational improvements. Simultaneously, they worked with CHCF board volunteers to support the businesses and workers impacted by the fire. When a newly rebuilt Market reopened in 2009, not one of the original businesses had been lost.
So today, despite the explosion of grocery options in Ward 6, you will still find me shopping slowly at Eastern Market. While Doris may no longer be around to bend my ear, I choose to spend my money with friends. These rich interactions form a community that transcends the Market, creating the village in
the city that we call Capitol Hill.
Celebrate the 10 Anniversary of the Market’s Reopening from June 7 to 9. Festivities include food and historic tours, live music and games for adults and children. Visit https://rediscovereasternmarket.eventbrite.com for details.