MARKET FORCES

After more than 150 years of operation, Soulard Market is being reinvented. But the change isn't going down easily.

The competing vendors hawk their fruits ina singsong manner, calling and responding as if to each other, creating a cadence, a poetic meter and an undeniable rhythm to their commerce.

"I got homegrown Missouri peaches here. Homegrown cantaloupe."

"Can I help somebody here?"

Saturday morning at Soulard Market
Jennifer Silverberg
Saturday morning at Soulard Market
Jerry Frandeka, president of the Historic Soulard Market Merchants Association, at the butcher shop his family has operated since 1913: "If I wasn't involved in (Soulard Restoration), I'd probably have as much suspicion as everybody else. But I've been involved in it since day one. So I'm comfortable with the way that things are set up right now."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Frandeka, president of the Historic Soulard Market Merchants Association, at the butcher shop his family has operated since 1913: "If I wasn't involved in (Soulard Restoration), I'd probably have as much suspicion as everybody else. But I've been involved in it since day one. So I'm comfortable with the way that things are set up right now."

"I got fresh apples here. Come on! I got your fresh-picked apples here. Come on."

"Next here!"

It's a familiar sound to shoppers at Soulard Market, part of the sensuous mosaic that unfolds every Saturday morning. It begins when the farmers, clad in bib overalls, arrive before daylight, driving their produce-laden pickup trucks from places in nearby Illinois and Missouri. A little later, the commercial sellers show up. The merchants then go about setting up their stalls, stacking tomatoes, onions and citrus fruits in pyramid-shaped mounds, constructing displays of color and form that rival any art exhibit. By 6 a.m., regular customers are already starting to browse.

Hand-lettered signs at each booth, some scribbled on brown-paper bags, quote the prices of the day: turnip greens, $1.25 a bunch; Yukon Gold potatoes, 4 pounds for $1.90; Boise Reds, 95 cents a pound, 3 pounds for $2.50; Jade Star melons, $2 each.

Within a few hours, the market will be teeming with a crowd as diverse as the bounty offered for sale. Customers travel here from all over the city and the surrounding suburbs. Their ranks are made up of black and white, rich and poor. In the crowded midways, snatches of foreign languages can be heard. Autumn light streams into the open-air sheds, casting a golden hue on the edges of this vibrant weekend spectacle.

There is a somnolent face to Soulard Market, too. At 10 a.m. on a given weekday, a watchman slumbers in the morning sun at the vegetable stand on the corner of Seventh Street and Lafayette. He is reclining in a chaise lounge, the backyard variety, bundled in a tattered quilt, with a tabby kitten nestled in his lap. Another hand-lettered sign, this one a more permanent fixture, hangs from a nearby electrical panel. It reads: "We accept food stamps." To the side are scattered crates of rotting sweet corn. An old International Harvester truck with a shattered windshield is parked behind the stand. Across the aisle, a squirrel, poised on a guy wire, munches on a morsel of garbage. Devoid of humanity, the rusting iron latticework of the market takes on more prominence, as does the hodgepodge of empty wooden vending counters. Seen from this perspective, the market looks and feels like an aging, vacant warehouse.

By all accounts, Soulard Market, a publicly owned utility, is on the decline. The market is open for operation Wednesday-Saturday, but the vast majority of business is conducted just two days a week, on Friday and Saturday. With Soulard Market's business buffeted by a dwindling St. Louis population and increasing competition from supermarkets and restaurants, the city already has been forced to subsidize the market in recent years, spending $100,000 or more annually for its upkeep. At the same time, sales have decreased and tenant vacancy rates have risen.

To stem the downward spiral, the city is planning an ambitious $10 million renovation of the historic landmark. It is anticipated that the money will be raised through a public-private partnership that will likely include a substantial contribution from the Danforth Foundation. As a part of the revamping effort, the city is also seriously contemplating turning over the management of the market to Soulard Restoration Inc., a nonprofit corporation.

Soulard Restoration is the brainchild of Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th Ward), who is spearheading the campaign to revive the market. She is credited with selecting the five directors of the organization, most of whom have ties to city government or to the Danforth Foundation, which has so far donated $150,000 for the initial planning. The project is being overseen by the St. Louis Development Corp. (SLDC).

However well-intended or essential it may be, the renovation has encountered resistance from customers and merchants. One vendor has circulated a petition requesting that improvements be limited to cleaning and fixing up the market.

"All those things are things that we are working on," says Young. "I can understand where the tenants are coming from, because there hasn't been anything that has gone on down there for eons, and it's their livelihoods that are at stake. It's a painful process," she adds. "It's like going to the dentist." To make the entire enterprise profitable, the market must attract a broader customer base. The only other option, says Young, is to close Soulard Market down.

To ease tenants' fears, Soulard Restoration board members have been meeting regularly with them to address their complaints. In addition, the president of the merchants' association sits on the board of the nonprofit corporation. But despite these inclusive efforts, the proposal itself was devised with little advance input from the vendors who will be most directly affected by the changes.

Those changes include standardized storage space and new stall designs. Another controversial aspect of the plan would prohibit vendors from parking coolers or refrigeration units on the street behind their stalls. In addition, the plan calls for the redesign of the interior of the enclosed portion of the market and the addition of a restaurant that would displace some longtime tenants.

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