Keeping the city’s juices flowing

The DC Office of Planning is having public meetings now about the Florida Avenue Farmers Market near Gallaudet. They have to be quick about it. Within 180 days of recent legislation on developing the area, they must make a decision about office space, retail space, and residential space, all taking into consideration “absorbing” the new residents and employees it would draw in. I went to one of these meetings this week, where all sorts of people who have studied that jagged swath of northeast DC space reported and others who are involved in city planning discussed. When they were done, residents passionately testified and complained and urged. Some actually gave advice and shared visions, which was the point of the meeting (I was happy to see awareness that big guys might be out to get the little residents, awareness raised by the toil of many a community organizer, but in this case the rage was misplaced and a tad embarrassing. These were not evil developers they were talking to, but sympathetic city employees).

One woman stood out for me among all of this. Her main point wasn’t about the political and social impact of development but about the gut of the city. She said she had lived in DC for many years and before that lived internationally in several cities. All of these cities, she said, whether it was in Latin America or Europe, had downtown wholesale food markets. All of them! To be a viable and vibrant city, it seemed, they had to have such a thing.

Places like the DC Farmers Market are called eyesores, backwards, uninviting, unsanitary. Could it be this kind of thing that keeps the juices of a city going? We also have Eastern Market, with its fancy cheeses and asparagus salad and flower arrangements, But imagine if what she said is true, and imagine if it’s true for the Farmers Market. Imagine if it’s vital just the way it is. No need for drastic improvement, unless it’s a word of mouth campaign to make more locals show up with their shopping carts on Saturday mornings.

After that meeting, you’d think I’d be considering affordable housing, mixed-use development, revitalization versus gentrification, tax base, and all that. But I’m thinking wholesale market and thinking how I’d been wrong about it. As much as I’ve enjoyed the Farmers Market, I’ve always been sure that this arrangement couldn’t last. I figured I’d show up one day and it would be a strip mall. The Italian bread would be pre-packaged and counted by beeping scanners instead of women with calloused fingers punching each of your purchases into the cash register. But maybe it could–and should–stay as it is: Bare bones and inexpensive. Mom and Pop. Down and dirty. How lovely!

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