On the corner of Fourth Street and Florida Avenue NE, a sign taunts passersby: “Pretty soon, you won’t recognize the place. Promise.” And although the advertisement has been there for years, this bold declaration of gentrification might not have carried much weight before Saturday.
That’s because a brand-new, sparkling Union Market opened last weekend, replacing the old Capital City Farmers Market, which for years
had been a go-to place for black families in the nearby Brentwood, Ivy City and Trinidad neighborhoods. The old food bazaar was part of the area that in 1995 Washington City Paper called “the most putrid spot in the city.” In those years, I was a teenager on a baseball team that practiced on a field across the street at Brentwood Park all summer. I can tell you, that description was accurate.
But after a fire burned down the old building, there’s a new market in its place. It feels more like a Crate & Barrel. Indeed, while luxury cars with out-of-city tags streamed into the parking lots Saturday, older residents vented their frustration that the new place was, well, unrecognizable.
Jerry Mercer, who lives nearby, sat inside the market, visibly upset, like many others. “This here was a historic market where you could get your greens, your collards, your ham hocks, your country bacon,” Mercer, 52, said. “Where are we supposed to go? This ain’t right.”
Truthfully, it was a sad scene. As young families sampled gourmet ice cream and $5 sodas, neighbors looked on from the outside in, feeling as if a landmark had been stolen from them.
But, as most things in Washington’s urban development and change, it’s not that simple. EDENS, the owners and developers of the property, operated the old market for about four years before things went haywire: In October, a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement led to 11 arrests related to sales of knockoff merchandise; a week later, there was an electrical fire that displaced everyone.
“Then all hell breaks loose,” said Steve Boyle, a managing director at EDENS. And it made for a difficult process of figuring out who should be able to come return.
Some of the vendors were tied up in the raid . . . [and] some of them were really really egregiously late on rent,” Boyle said.
Harvey’s Market and Almaala Farms — the only stand currently accepting WIC vouchers — were the lone holdovers after everything shook out. But in a city where so much that is familiar to longtime Washingtonians is fading away, some residents still feel duped.
Boyle said he understands. “If it was my market for however many years . . . I’d want to understand what . . . somebody’s trying to accomplish there,” he said.
He takes responsibility for the lack of community outreach before the market was reopened. But, to his company, the market is a matter of quality over nostalgia. “I think the quality of the old market . . . was subpar to what people deserve.”
So what to do?
If Union Market doesn’t want to get dubbed as the latest battleground for displacement concerns in Northeast, the owners will need to make a concerted effort to educate people about the importance of healthy living. Selling ham and chitlins may appease a few, but a more admirable goal would be instituting nutrition education programs in schools. Ultimately, that’s the goal: keeping people alive long enough to enjoy their surroundings.
Truth is, this would all be moot if D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) had gotten his way when he represented Ward 5, home to the market. In 2006, he pushed a plan that would have turned the entire industrial area into yet another mixed-used develop-ment project. Luckily, it never happened. That’s something that makes Paul Pascal, whose relatives have been shop owners in the area for decades, very happy.
“I think what they’ve done is, in a sense, retained the food flavor of the market,” Pascal said. “Now you have a significant piece of the property in the market that’s devoted to food.”
Be it oxtails or merlot jelly, technically, everyone can still eat. Over time, more vendors will flesh out the new place and so-called old neighbors will feel more comfortable. But for now, there’s a lot of work to do to make it live up to its namesake: Unity.
Clinton Yates is a columnist for TheRootDC
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