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The Food Markets That Help a City Thrive

The old buildings that housed multiple sellers under a single roof were more than just places to shop. They were community-making institutions.

The front entrance to the Central Municipal Market or “Varvakios” in Athens, Greece. These grand buildings used to exist in almost every major American city, but now only a handful are left.
City markets — those halls, often of iron and glass, that provide a space for the selling and buying of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish — have long been a passion of mine. It’s probably because they combine in one physical location three things I love: eating, architecture and urban economics.

These grand buildings used to exist in almost every major American city. Typically, the city government owned the building and leased out its spaces to sellers under various rules. The quality of what was sold was good and the prices were reasonable too, because the number of middlemen were reduced.

My hometown of Norfolk, Va., used to have two of these markets: one built in the late 19th century, and one built in the 1930s. After World War II, both met the wrecking ball. This happened in most American cities. Now, few of the buildings survive, much less the actual food markets. Two venerable ones still operating are Pike Place in Seattle and the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. (The latter recently moved to grander quarters paid for by developers who wanted the old building’s air rights.) In recent years, cities including Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., have worked to create new ones. In general, they have been successful. But they can’t re-create the magic and gravitas of the ones that existed a century and more ago.

But most western and central European cities still have them. There are La Boqueria in Barcelona, La Ribeira in Lisbon and the Markthalle Neun in Berlin. Notable for its absence is Les Halles in Paris, its multiple halls of iron and glass torn down in the 1970s and its wares moved to a bland suburban location. Urbanists and food lovers still bemoan its loss.

In Prague, where I’m living now, I have come across four or five grand old city market buildings. Each district had its own. Their distinctive high roofs and skylights are easy to spot. None are food markets anymore, though. I suspect the Communists, during their four-decade reign here, outlawed them as illegal acts of capitalism.

Recently I visited a particularly good and still operating city market, the Central Municipal Market or “Varvakios” in Athens. Much of it was devoted to the selling of meat. There were three large halls, with dozens of butchers in each one.

I arrived at 7:30 a.m. As the city woke up, I watched as men and a few women wrestled with the carcasses of cows, pigs, lambs, goats and chickens, getting their stalls and wares ready. This was not your typical neat cutting of steaks or chops. One man took a knife to the head of some large animal I could not identify. Glistening livers and other less-showcased body parts abounded.

The day before had been a holiday — National No Day, or Ohi Day — and you might think that these butchers would be grumpy to be up early. And some might think theirs a distasteful task. But the butchers trimmed and carved with firm gazes, smiling and chatting with their neighbors.
The scene inside the Central Muncipal Market in Athens. (Alex Marshall)
I could see the carcasses of the animals arriving by truck or van. The back door would open or roll up, and a half-side of a cow or an entire hog would be swung or lowered down to a butcher. In a short time, the trucks would be gone, and the market would be fully open.

I would not be able to find this on-site butchering in any market in the United States, I wager. Tyler Cowen, in his 2012 book An Economist Gets Lunch, says that as economies advance, typically food supply chains lengthen. He seemed hesitant to conclude what is obvious to me, which is that as supply chains lengthen, quality goes down. The fresh scallops caught in the local harbor are replaced by ones captured many miles away and shipped in on ice. In the Athens market, the supply chain was short. There was no doubt the meat was fresh.

The Athens market was built in 1886, but European public markets, set up in approved locations and governed by the state, date back at least a thousand years. The Rialto Fish Market in Venice dates back to the 12th century. In the late 19th century, cities all over the world used the latest technology of iron and glass to create “the golden age of European covered markets”: spacious, airy and light-filled spaces. One scholar called them “iron umbrellas.” They were gathering places and focal points of community life.

I would like to bring some new version of them back to the United States. I envision beautiful structures, built and owned by the city, where producers and buyers of vegetables, meat and fish would make transactions. It would be a way of promoting local agriculture as well as civic togetherness. But it might be a hard sell. One advocate of local agriculture had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned this.

One might argue that there is no need to mourn the loss of the old city markets. After all, there are 8,600 farmers markets in the United States now, according to the Farmers Market Coalition. These are wonderful institutions. Often just occupying a spare parking lot, farmers typically sell their own eggplants, cantaloupes, lamb and beef to customers.
In the Athens market, the supply chain is short. There's no doubt the meat is fresh. (Alex Marshall)

But an assembly of sellers on a blacktop is a far cry from a dedicated and enclosed space, which keeps out rain and uses electricity. The lack of adequate facilities is why meat sellers in farmers markets often sell their wares frozen. Nothing wrong with that, but any cook knows that fresh is better than frozen.

Should a city try to build a new city market, I can already hear someone advocating it be built in the suburbs with plenty of space for cars. The merits or demerits of that idea I will have to leave for another day. Certainly the one in my imagination is in a walkable city.

After watching the butchers in Athens at work, I strolled a few paces for some breakfast. This is another nice feature of the old city markets: simple, unpretentious restaurants whose clientele are as much the workers as the shoppers. I stopped at one specializing in soup, and soon had a bowl with a meat-covered bone emerging from broth and potatoes.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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