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Crowds Return to Eastern Market

Shoppers are finding their way to Eastern Market's temporary location, six months after a fire devastated the 134-year-old structure.
Shoppers are finding their way to Eastern Market's temporary location, six months after a fire devastated the 134-year-old structure. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

After the flames were fought and the smoke cleared, one thing was obvious: Eastern Market was in bad shape. The 134-year-old market building was a Washington landmark -- designed by Adolf Cluss, one of Washington's most influential architects, in Pierre L'Enfant's original grid for the city. For years, the market had been a driver of Capitol Hill's renaissance, but an early morning fire April 30 gutted the landmark.

"It was heartbreaking," said Donna Scheeder, chairman of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee. "People looked at the market the way they looked at a horrible accident, a look of despondency on their faces."

Now, almost half a year later, the market vendors have been in a temporary home for two months, and merchants say business is finally returning to levels from before the fire.

"The vendors . . . have been saying, particularly in the last couple of weeks, that business has picked up and been good," Scheeder said.

The numbers are difficult to measure. "We don't track sales; we don't have good indicators of how business is," said Bryan K. Cook, the market manager. "All I can tell you is word of mouth. . . . Many of the merchants have indicated to me that business is at normal levels, normal meaning before the fire."

The resurgent traffic before the holiday season is welcome news to vendors. After the fire, vendors had been granted rent abatements through the summer; October is the first month in which full rents have returned.

After the fire, many with a stake in Eastern Market were concerned for the market's future. "The challenge has been that people have seen the fire image and felt as though we in fact were not open. That could not be further from the truth," said Steven L. Miller, a vendor at the adjoining flea market.

"The vendors who were displaced were principally those people in the building," Miller said. "But 90 percent of the exhibitors remained."

For Miller it was hard to imagine the market closing: Eastern Market was the reason he had moved to the Washington area. After a career in nonprofit groups in the Midwest, Miller was visiting D.C. and stopped at the market. The bazaar atmosphere captivated him.

"I told my wife, 'Wouldn't it be a kick if we quit everything and came out here and vended on the weekend?' " Miller said. Now 61, he has sold his black and white fine art photography on weekends for nearly four years. The return of shoppers means he's unlikely to stop soon.

This month, the Eastern Market neighborhood was picked by the American Planning Association as one of the country's Ten Great Neighborhoods. The award was seen in the community as affirmation of the market's importance. It had taken decades of effort, as Scheeder put it, "to make sure that it didn't end up like the Georgetown market, with a Dean & DeLuca in it."

Renovation plans for the market have progressed on schedule, said Bill Rice, spokesperson for the D.C. Office of Property Management, which oversees the market. The dates on the reconstruction timeline have been hit, and the market is set to reopen in 2009.

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