Here's a Boston Market Local Food Lovers Are Dying to See Open

As Boston, New York City, and Madison, Wis., move to build year-round palaces of local eats, some say the European-style public market is back.

(Photo: Mass. Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs/Flickr)

Apr 25, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

When the Boston Redevelopment Authority green-lighted plans for a public food market along one of the city’s busiest pedestrian corridors earlier this month, you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief from local food advocates. A few may not believe it's really happening until they see shovels and sledgehammers converting the empty, state-owned building into a 30,000-square-foot market, but you can forgive their skepticism—dreams for an indoor, year-round local foods market in Boston go back to the last century, and formal plans have been in various states of flux since 2001.

Visitors will be treated to something organizers believe will be special when the Boston Public Market’s doors open next year: a light-filled hall featuring fresh produce, sustainable fish and meats, farmstead cheeses, wines, and flowers, all from Massachusetts-based producers. The market will also feature prepared foods and a demonstration kitchen staffed by local chefs. Boston Public Market, along with the historic pushcarts at adjacent Haymarket, will anchor a half-mile-long “market district” between Boston’s City Hall and the North End.

“For people who live close to the market looking for fresh produce, this is going to be a godsend,” Liz Morningstar, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Public Food Market, told The Boston Globe.

Many of America’s grand public food markets were torn down in the mid-20th century as more Americans began to get their food from suburban supermarkets. A few remained, notably Seattle’s Pike Place, Cleveland’s hundred-year-old West Side Market, and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. But the country has seen a recent uptick in cities moving to build or restore year-round public markets. Madison, Wis., has a new public market in the works, and Los Angeles' Grand Central Market is in the midst of a significant overhaul. In New York City, there's a proposal to build the city’s largest public market at the site of the old Fulton Fish Market.

Public markets have the potential to do much more than just provide a location to buy produce, says Dr. Alfonso Morales, a University of Wisconsin professor who has for years researched and written on the role food markets play in cities around the world.

“These markets enhance food access, support educational efforts in cooking and nutrition, and foster local and regional business and economic activity,” he says. “People understand that our contemporary economy is spread across the world, yet they see the importance of local economic activity to the prospects for their neighbors and themselves.”

Furthermore, public markets have been egalitarian social meeting places in cities for thousands of years. The relationships between consumers and producers they (as well as farmers markets) help spark are what set public markets apart from traditional supermarkets.

Morales points out that the more "modern" food retailers, such as Whole Foods, are now designing their stores with smaller “markets” inside, featuring the faces of local producers on placards next to food items. “But when [consumers] go to market they see local vendors in the flesh, and they develop trusting relationships, or they take the farmer’s presence as a proxy for those kinds of relationships,” he says.

Despite being open year-round, Morales says, all the great public markets have ample outdoor space—a quality shared by the proposed site of Manhattan's market. After looking at the drawings for the Boston Public Market, he was worried the site would contain too little outdoor space, but he says that its position next to the al fresco pushcarts at Haymarket could be “synergistic.” He also says the market’s success requires the inclusion of non-food activities that bring in customers, as well as educational programming that “incorporates the food supply chain.”

While the location may be ideal from an academic standpoint, devoting Manhattan real estate to anything other than housing for the superrich isn't a common move these days. As such, the New York plan has been controversial. The current lessee, The Howard Hughes Corporation, is jockeying to destroy the old market and develop the space into a residential high-rise. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, for one, condemned the Hughes plan and instead is pushing for the restoration of what would become the city’s premier food market.

“Imagine the Union Square Greenmarket with a roof over its head, bigger and better: fishers and foragers, selling directly; purveyors of all types, gathering great food from everywhere; prepared foods that might make you drool,” Bittman wrote last year. “Think of the first great indoor market you visited—huge in scope, democratic and central—and imagine it in Manhattan.

“Such an opportunity exists at the site of the former Fulton Fish Market.”

Undoubtedly, similar opportunities must exist all over the country.