By Samuel Fromartz
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, Eastern Market, the 134-year-old food market just blocks from my home in Washington, D.C., burned down. No one was hurt but lost in the embers of the three-alarm fire were neighborhood businesses - several butchers, a fish monger, two vegetable stands, a cheese vendor, a pasta maker, a bakery and a market lunch counter – 14 market stands in all. Together they made up the heart of a community, a place where you could step out of the frenzied politics of Washington and eat a decent crab cake sandwich. You would run into friends and neighbors at the market during the weekend, or find yourself rushing there in the evening to grab homemade ravioli, a few bratwurst, or a pleasant conversation with the vendors. It's hard to put a value on the place, but you certainly realize it when it's gone.
Built in 1873, Eastern Market reeked of character, with huge steel beams in the high vaulted ceiling, tall glass windows, and old freezer cases where the vender's goods were displayed. Down on one end of the hall, you could buy sweet, chewy, rugelach, or roast chicken on a spit, and down the other end, crab cakes, fried fish and oysters, and French fries. On weekend mornings, the breakfast line at the Market Lunch counter wound out the creaky wooden doorways and down the block. The line was nearly as long at lunch - the slowest fast-food in Washington.
These weren't high-end gourmet retailers selling rare artisan foods, nor were they local food purveyors pushing a 100-mile diet. But they were the antithesis of the bland suburban shopping mall, with longstanding relationships with neighbors on Capitol Hill. The small businesses worked in a very traditional way: they bought from wholesalers and resold the food in the market, with a smile and a free banana thrown in your bag. I've been to a few other old markets that had a same feel, whether the Soulard Market in St. Louis (built in 1843), the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia (1892) or Pike Place Market in Seattle (1907), which was the most touristy of the lot. Although Eastern Market attracted tourists, it was primarily a working market and the soul of Capitol Hill.
Outside, on the weekend, a mishmash of produce sellers lined the street under the permanent steel awning (which was just reconstructed in the last year or so). There was the old woman in the lawn chair sitting next to her portable heater who has been there for eons, offering goods from the wholesale market. But there were local growers, too, who made a point to show up, with tomatoes, peppers, asparagus and greens. Then there were specialty food sellers like Uncle Brutha, with his superlative hot sauce, who recently expanded into a nearby store. On Sunday, the craft vendors took over, selling jewelry, paintings, furniture, hats and assorted bric-a-brac. Lately, the market seemed to be more vibrant, but that may have reflected the general upswing in the neighborhood, which has been seeing a renaissance, especially among businesses.
I rode my bike by the market both Monday and Tuesday. The street was still cordoned off, fire trucks present. You could see inside the battered windows at the charred and twisted remnants of the place, though the brick shell was intact. The roof had collapsed in a few places, and vendors were standing outside being interviewed by the media. Most put on a stoic face, though neighbors wondered aloud how a public building, owned by the city, could have been allowed to operate without a basic sprinkler system. Considering the hundreds if not thousands who made their way into the market each weekend, the city was lucky the fire occurred in the off hours. Plus, everyone was worried about the loss of this landmark. A row house across from the market hung a banner outside, "We love our vendors."
The fear now is that the center of the neighborhood will be gone, or rather is gone, up in smoke. The mayor has promised to rebuild the place, but that will take up to $30 million and 18-24 months before it is finished. Our non-voting representative in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is seeking federal funds for the project. The neighborhood has rallied and within 24 hours was collecting money for the businesses and employees whose entire livelihood was based on the market, the great fear being they will move on before the place is rebuilt.
Hopefully, they will not. Hopefully, Eastern Market will be rebuilt in a timely fashion and in a way that keeps true to its hardscrabble and neighborly character and not become just another culinary destination for the well-heeled. At the same time, I would acknowledge that its character had some costs, since the building was clearly wanting of a paint job and a deep cleaning; it also apparently needed workable electrical wiring (the likely culprit in the fire). So perhaps this will present an opportunity for the landlord to renovate the place without losing what was once there, so that it could become once again the vibrant heart of a neighborhood that is now sorely feeling its loss.