A Tale of Two Markets

A photo tour of gentrification and redevelopment in Washington’s old central wholesale market.

If you follow food culture in Washington, you’ve probably seen this place:

The new Union Market.

The new Union Market.

Like the sign says, it’s called Union Market.

Union Market was developed by Edens, a multibillion-dollar developer and property owner based in Columbia, South Carolina. Edens holds over 100 shopping centers up and down the East Coast, the majority of which are run-of-the-mill strip malls anchored by well-known national retailers. Union Market is definitely one of their more unique properties, taking the shape of a food hall and focusing instead on local and regional vendors.

According to the Market’s website, Edens “sees a bright future for the Union Market district defined by people, passion and possibility.” It envisions “an urban village born from the diversity of the dreams and energy of the nation’s capital. An authentic market of culture and commerce. A true gathering place that serves as an inviting melting pot of old world heritage and new world opportunities.”

Edens traces the Market’s history back “over 200 years,” to the Center Market, which once stood where the National Archives now stands. It boldly proclaims the market has historically been “a great unifier for DC – connecting people from a variety of background” and that the Market “will prove to be that creative spark again.” It will be an “authentic district” and a “pioneering place.”

Union Market sits in the middle of this:

The Old Union Market.

The old Union Market.

Like the sign says, it’s also called Union Market. (Some of the letters have been missing since a 2011 two-alarm fire.) Sometimes it’s also called the Florida Avenue Market.

What gets overlooked is that Union Market – the old, original Union Market, that is – is already a “district defined by people, passion and possibility” and an “urban village born from the diversity of the dreams and energy of the nation’s capital.” It’s already an “authentic market of culture and commerce,” and it’s a “true gathering place that serves as an inviting melting pot of old world heritage and new world opportunities” to boot.

A quick walk among the grid of streets south and west of the new Union Market reveals a staggering amount of diversity. The neighborhood is a “melting pot” unlike few others in the District of Columbia.

There are Latino markets.

IMG_1927

A Latino market.

And there are African and Caribbean markets.

An African and Caribbean market.

An African and Caribbean market.

You can buy tropical products, like Jamaican patties and coco bread.

A tropical market.

A tropical market.

And you can buy fresh goat, slaughtered daily from a local farm.

Fresh goat for sale.

Fresh goat for sale.

You can even buy “Cow Something,” whatever that is.

Cow something for sale.

Cow something for sale.

You can spot Korean writing next to British pop posters.

See the hangul?

See the hangul?

And there’s been an excellent Italian grocery and deli since 1926.

A. Litteri.

A. Litteri, 517-519 Morse Street NE.

Some of the stores just sell restaurant supplies.

Restaurant supply store.

Restaurant supply store.

Others don’t sell food-related wares at all, instead selling the souvenirs you see sold at tourist shops all over town.

Sunlight Wholesale.

Sunlight Wholesale.

It’s a vast district, covering several square blocks and encompassing over 100 vendors. Many of the buildings are owned by the vendors themselves and have been for decades.

IMG_1883

View of 5th Street NE.

Architecturally, it’s an interesting area, with wide streets and old brick buildings lined with colonnades.

View of Neal Place NE.

View of Neal Place NE.

But, I’ll admit, it’s a little gritty, too.

Alley between 4th and 5th Streets NE.

Alley between 4th and 5th Streets NE.

You might even find the remnants of last night’s dinner in the gutter: sardines, a Heineken, and a cigarette.

A balanced meal.

A balanced meal.

But it is diverse.

A kosher hot dog in Northeast.

A kosher hot dog in Northeast.

(There’s even an award-winning guerrilla art installation about diversity by a famous French artist.)

Art.

Art.

And it is local.

Leo probably lived in the area.

Leo probably lived in the area.

And it is authentic.

Authenticity at work.

Authenticity at work.

Edens writes that, in recent decades, the district has become depressed. It promises the new Union Market “will be the heart and soul of a broader district bringing a renewed spirit to the neighborhood” and that the district “will once again be the engine of entrepreneurial spirit.”

But on a recent Saturday morning, there were no signs of a depressed neighborhood in need of renewal. Trucks came and went. Pedestrians milled about and filled the retail and wholesale establishments. The wide streets were crowded with honking cars, and there were no parking spots available.

Traffic follows its own patterns.

Traffic follows its own patterns.

But luckily development has arrived to rescue the city’s wholesale market from itself.

A new luxury apartment building looms.

A new luxury apartment building looms nearby.

The new Union Market is a lovely enough place to spend an afternoon. But it doesn’t really engage with the historical working neighborhood that surrounds it, even though it claims to be an extension of that history. Food trends change, and with them food infrastructure, but it’s always worth remembering, and respecting, what came before – an “urban village born from the diversity of the dreams and energy of the nation’s capital.”

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