To market, to market

Eastern Market doorI’m very excited to get back to Eastern Market this afternoon; having lived in walking distance of the market building, we went there on a regular basis for food staples and baked goods, and I for one greatly miss such easy access to fresh vegetables and the like. Once upon a time Washington, DC had several market areas tucked into its quadranted neighborhoods, but now, there is only one standing.

Even this market building suffered a serious blow from an electrical fire that swept through the brick structure, and only in the last six months is it back, having been painstakingly restored by the city. Good thing it sits next to one of the wealthiest and most historic neighborhoods in the city, Capitol Hill. It’s so beloved it is the namesake for its own local area, and the corresponding Metro stop. The mayor couldn’t possibly have turned his back on Eastern Market and lived to talk about it.

I’d moved from Arlington, Virginia into the city in 2004, never really venturing over to the brick building, where inside, deli counters, fish and seafood mongers, a baker, a cheese counter, and a couple of produce sellers stood, always grinning from ear to ear while they put edibles in one’s bag and pocketed one’s donation of green paper. Actually, I couldn’t have told anyone that these people existed when I moved because I’d never gone inside. Susanne, however, was a regular visitor. She lived a few blocks away from me and I’d never met her. But she knew the value of the market.

Once we started dating, some weekend or other rolled around and I went with her—much to her astonishment, I’d lived 10 minutes walking time from the place for more than a year and had not yet checked it out—and I was amazed. On Saturdays and Sundays more vendors flocked to the block like they were wildebeests descending on the only watering hole for miles, filling up the sidewalks with everything from pottery and paintings to local fruit and fresh in-season vegetables. Silver queen corn, cut yesterday. Pink lady apples. Yellow watermelon, the leaves still drying on one end. Stubby carrots that tasted like sunshine. Peaches that made even patient people beg while they waited for them to ripen. I could not believe these were my options in a city, and I spent my first working summers at a produce stand at the edge of New Jersey’s farmlands.

Canales' deli and SusanneIt wasn’t long before I’d made friends with the weekday vendors and knew what kind of small talk interested the weekend folks. Susanne just shook her head at me doing my extrovert thing. After we’d gotten engaged, the deli owners would ask us how the planning was going. Their daughter had tied the knot the year before and had lots of advice and enthusiasm for us. I totally fell in love with Eastern Market, but it had shown me its affection first.

We had just decided to try a new kind of sausage every week and were fixing to grill up some weisswurst when I heard about the fire in the South Building, the technical name for the weekday market center. I was crushed. We ventured over to see how bad the damage was, since brick seemed like a fairly sturdy construction material. The roof hung down in strips, the big gaps letting in the evening sky. Bricks sat in their rows, tidy, scorched, looking ghostly. This was a gravely wounded structure, and we weren’t certain anyone would get it together enough to repair it.

But the the groundswell of support came loudly and quickly, businesses saying they’d donate what they could, the mayor making all kinds of near-frenetic-sounding promises, and the proximate school lending over its playground so a temporary building could be erected while the displacement of the vendors continued. I was heartened that everyone’s focus was on the owners of the market shops and their families; we made it a mission to head over there at least as often as we already did to keep buying from them. And they counted us among their regulars, too stubborn to let a little 5-alarm fire get in the way of cured meat.

burned out Eastern market buildingThe restoration work began with the demolition of the ruined roof, and its reconstruction. Those days at the market we would make our purchases with the cacophony of drills, hammers, and saws cutting through the air to our ears.

The temporary building was sturdy, but reminiscent of what was probably dotting the landscapes of Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t care for military housing for our peaceful market, but we were glad the war hawks had invented something we could use to keep the vendors going.

The city sponsored a mural contest, inviting artists to paint window panels while the work continued. These would at some point—some point being when the glass was ready—be auctioned off to help pay for the restoration. It was as if art didn’t want to be left out as a helper to save the heart of the neighborhood.

City managers closed off 7th Street SE next to the market so the weekend vendors could gather there, since there was a fenced perimeter around the building, taking up a good chunk of the sidewalk space. It was brilliant, and why hadn’t they done it before?

restored Eastern Market buildingWe saw the estimated time of completion for the project and again were saddened because we knew we’d be moving away before its rise from the ashes. But last January we were back in town, and got to walk through the redone space. I could still see the sun through the roof, but this time it was because of a lovely line of sky lights. Eastern Market was back.

And so I smile every time I see the old brick building with its la grande dame makeover.

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