In Barcelona, neighborhoods revolve around their mercats: century-old, hangar-size indoor markets where locals go for produce, nuts, meat, and fish that come from fields surrounding the city and ports half an hour down the coast. Built in the late 19th century as part of a three-decade, modernist-era expansion that doubled the size of the city beyond its ancient Roman center, the market system anchored the new neighborhoods, growing to become crucial elements of social, economic, and culinary life in one of Europe’s great cities.
A century later, those markets are showing their age, and shopping habits have changed. But Barcelona is adapting. Over the past three years, the historic Mercat de Sant Antoni has been undergoing a studs-out modernization, the first significant renovation since its doors opened in 1882. Scheduled for completion in 2016, the $90 million rebuild is part of a citywide initiative to update each of the 39 traditional markets, not only to keep the old structures standing but to help them compete with the convenience of contemporary supermarkets, whose broader offerings and longer hours have been whittling away at the mercats’ market share.
Unlike in the U.S., where city governments often face a choice between the tax revenue from big-box stores and Main Street vitality, Barcelona’s program is betting that old and new can coexist in the same spaces. In many cases, the remodeling efforts have attached supermarkets to the traditional structures, right alongside fish and vegetable stalls that have been in the same families for generations, encouraging shoppers to patronize both. Beneath Sant Antoni, excavations to install a basement revealed ruins and artifacts from the Roman era up to the 18th century, which will likely be left in place as an exhibition once archaeologists are through examining them.
So far the experiment seems to be working. A study published last summer by Barcelona’s Municipal Markets Institute, which partly administers the system, found that 60 percent of shoppers who entered the traditional markets also went to the adjacent supermarkets. In 38 percent of visits, people bought the same items from family vendors and supermarkets housed under the same roof, often switching day to day depending on prices, current inventory, or their mood.
Barcelona’s example suggests an alternative to choosing between the convenience and savings of chains and the freshness and community advantages of local shops. In Barcelona, picking up a few things for dinner often means patronizing both.