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

Share on Nextdoor
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?"

"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.

An architectural task force formed by Soulard Restoration is working to hash out compromises on the most contentious of these matters, but no consensus has been achieved. Meanwhile, the design concepts are going through their final revision and are scheduled to be implemented sometime next year, if financing becomes available.

Dan Ziegler, a 73-year-old farmer, reflects on the changes being imposed on him and his fellow vendors. "I'm for improvement, but I think they're going too far," he says, sitting on a crate in the bed of his pickup truck.

Ziegler is particularly upset with the suggestion that he be required to unload his produce into a standardized storage cooler and park his own refrigeration unit elsewhere to enhance the aesthetics of the market. "I will not unload my truck into a cooler," he says. "That's a three-hour job to unload that cooler, and then where are you going take the truck?" he asks.

As Ziegler talks, his wife and granddaughters are busy selling turnip greens, sweet potatoes, green beans and okra at the family's market stall. Ziegler raises the vegetables on 8 of the 158 acres he farms near Hillsboro, Mo. Except for a two-year hiatus during World War II, he has been tilling the soil all of his life. He first sold produce at the market 58 years ago for his father. Since 1953, he has operated his own stand.

"I just don't think the city knows what they got here," says Ziegler. " I just hope they don't wreck the place."

According to the consultant brought in by the city, the market is already a wreck and in need of a major makeover. The city selected the Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a New York-based nonprofit organization, to develop its market-renovation plan in 1996. The local architectural and engineering firms of Kiku Obata & Co. and David Mason & Associates assisted in the design work. The first PPS recommendations, which came out two years ago, were based on surveys conducted with a total of 400 customers and 51 vendors.

"The market's negative visual appeal needs to be corrected through a complete facility renovation," reads the PPS status report. "The decrepit sheds, unwelcoming entrances, rusting "storage' trucks and general air of neglect all work against the market." The PPS report describes the appearance of the market as "unhealthy," a term that continues to be echoed by board members of the Soulard Restoration group today.

What Soulard really needs, according to the PPS report, "is a place to sit and enjoy the "market parade,' while dining. Customers also want more prepared, ethnic, specialty and farm fresh food." There is no indication by PPS whether the fresh trapped raccoons, rabbits and live chickens that are currently available at the market fit into the new marketing strategy.

Dan O'Neil, the PPS consultant who worked on the plan, compares Soulard Market to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, which he once managed: "When I took it over in 1980, it was a pretty scuzzy place, but there was still some life in there. I was there for 10 years every day. It's the busiest retail facility in the whole city today. All the original vendors are still there."

O'Neil sees similarities between the situation in St. Louis and the one he faced in Philadelphia. "People get very anxious, especially about change, when you're dealing with an old institution," he says. "You got a lot of vendors. It's hard to talk to them as a group because they're so different. Everyone thinks it's their market. Everyone loves it. Everyone thinks that any change is going to make it different, and people don't want it to be different. You don't get a consensus, but you've got to move. It's like trying to get a consensus in your own family. Someone's got to just say, "Look, you know — here we go.' You have to have faith in what you're doing."

Aside from faith, PPS has experience on its side. For the past decade, the group has been recognized as a leader in the field of public-market development, having redesigned and built such facilities throughout the United States and Europe. Besides St. Louis, the organization is involved in projects in Detroit, Kansas City and San Francisco. The late William H. Whyte, a former editor at Fortune magazine, founded PPS in 1975. Whyte, who died earlier this year, is most noted for writing The Organization Man, a bestselling sociological critique on corporate conformity.

In this case, however, conforming to institutional structure — at least architecturally — is supposed to be the goal. The trick, O'Neil says, is to retrofit new technology into the old facility without disturbing its historic integrity or charm.

The PPS plan calls for leaving the basic market configuration in place. A pair of open-air sheds will remain on the east and west ends of the market. The city recently upgraded the electrical system and has already nailed down a new roof. Other alterations include improving the interior lighting, resurfacing the floor, installing new signs, fixing up the restrooms and enhancing the entryways.

The most dramatic alteration, however, is slated to occur in the market's Grand Hall and the enclosed wings on the south side of the building, where existing interior walls will be gutted to make the area more spacious.

Jerry Frandeka, the 48-year-old president of the Historic Soulard Market Merchants Association, favors the renovation, even though his own businesses will be affected. The Frandeka family has operated a butcher shop at the market since 1913. They also run a fish market and pet shop. In his capacity as president of the Historic Soulard Market Merchants Association, Frandeka represents the 80 tenants who rent stalls at the market. He also sits on the board of Soulard Restoration.

"If I wasn't involved in it, I'd probably have as much suspicion as everybody else," says Frandeka, referring to the restoration effort. "But I've been involved in it since day one. So I'm comfortable with the way that things are set up right now. You have to continually improve. That's the way the American economy is. Otherwise you stay the same, and eventually you're going to lose. And that's kind of where Soulard Market is right now."

Frandeka blames a few "radical" vendors, nearing retirement age, for raising the most objections to the plan. "They'd rather kill this whole thing than to have to change. They'll do anything to stop it. They don't want to try to come up with a compromise or a solution."

Frandeka is concerned that the continuing conflict may jeopardize the financing of the entire project, if it is not resolved. "The key is the Danforth (Foundation) people," says Frandeka. "If they're going to spend $3 million, they want to look good. They don't want to get negative publicity. They want to be shown a plan that's going to make the market a success for the next 20 years. They don't want to just paint and fix up, which is what the petition wants. The petition is not supported by the Merchants Association," says Frandeka. "The Merchants Association thinks it's ill-conceived, ill-timed and counterproductive."

The originator of the petition is produce dealer Vince Sanfilippo, whose family has operated a vegetable stand at the market for 90 years. "We want it cleaned up. We want it dressed up. We want it painted. But we don't want it completely changed around," say Sanfilippo. "I'm 64 years old. I've seen the market go up, where you have a series of good years, and then go down. I don't know that changing everything is going to be the answer. They say it's just as easy to get $10 million or $11 million as it is $5 million. So it looks to me as if they're just setting out to get as much money as they can get, to do as much change as they can, in order to justify the money. We go to the meetings every week. I don't see anything so far that's going to do any good for the market. All I see them doing is uprooting people from their businesses, where they've been all their lives."

Jean Waters, a flower-seller at the market, is one of the longtime vendors who is being pushed out of her current location to make room for a dining area. Taking a break from waiting on customers, she explains her predicament. "They want to take my stand and the girl's next to me and put tables and chairs in, so people can sit down and have a cup of coffee," says Waters, who has worked at the market since she was 10 years old. The imminent relocation may force her and others to rent stalls in the "dead wing," the least profitable section of the market. Waters is not happy about that prospect. "None of us want to move up there. I'll do everything I can to stay here. This is my job. These people are my friends. I've known them my whole life."

As a board member and the chairman of the architectural committee, Peter Sortino finds such parochial sentiments an impediment to accomplishing Soulard Restoration's goals. "We realize that we are dealing with 80 independent businesses. Each one of those businesses operates in a certain way," says Sortino. "The consensus is that there are problems, and those problems are real. Many of the vendors agree that something needs to be done. We want to work with them on the special issues they have — but there's got to be a bigger vision that everybody buys into in the market. That means you've got to look beyond your own stand."

Sortino expresses his views on the proposed market renovation from the downtown offices of St. Louis 2004, on the 12th floor of the Metropolitan Square Building. The intergovernmental-affairs expert makes clear that his job at the Danforth Foundation-funded civic organization has nothing to do with his role as a volunteer market renovator. On the contrary, Sortino, a regular Soulard Market shopper, says he accepted the position with Soulard Restoration for altruistic reasons. "I've just got a love affair with the place," says Sortino. "My fun thing to do on weekends is to go down there every Saturday about 6, 6:30, and shop for about an hour. I do it 12 months a year."

Asked for specifics on the role of the Danforth Foundation in financing the project, Sortino says, "We haven't got to that level of detail with the foundation." Ideally, the renovation costs would be shared equally by the private and public sectors, he says. Sortino is more certain, however, about what the end result should be: "We don't want this to become a Schnucks or look like the Galleria."

From his vantage point on the sidewalk in front of the Seventh Street entrance to Soulard Market, Mark Sarich — another Soulard shopper — sees things differently. He is a member of Metropolis, a group that supports rejuvenating the city. "I don't want to stand up here and say, "Look, take your $10 million and go screw yourself.' That's not the point," says Sarich. "The point is, it's a public utility. It's crucial that the public have some input into what happens to that public utility. You had one public meeting in June," says Sarich. "That's been the only public meeting. In fact, we (later) tried to attend one of the meetings with the vendors, and they said there was a conflict and canceled the meeting."

Sarich suspects that the renovation will cause an increase in rents, which are now only a little more than $1,000 annually. Rent hikes could then lead to higher consumer prices, making the price of goods unaffordable for less affluent shoppers. "What I love about this market is, you've got a lot of diversity of customers. It provides food for a lot of poor people in the city. Is it legitimate for the city to invest $10 million-plus (to) upgrade something that's part of a public utility, which is going to clearly price people out of existence? They can say all they want about how they don't want to change the demographics of the market, but you can economically change the demographic and (then) say, "Oh, I didn't do that.'"

Soulard Market is the last public market in the city of St. Louis, a vestige from a time that predates fast food and frozen dinners. The sign on its roof proclaims the market was established in 1779, but the founding has been more accurately placed at 1838, when Julia Cerre Soulard bequeathed the property to the city. Soulard stipulated that the land be used as a public market in perpetuity or else relinquished to her heirs. The current market building was completed in 1929.

Though the architecture of the market is modeled after a 15th-century Florentine design, its organization is 20th-century Byzantine. The market master, who manages day-to-day affairs, reports to the director of the Department of Public Utilities, who also oversees the Water Division and the city's cable-television channel. The second floor of the market is in the bailiwick of the Recreation Division, and the adjacent park falls under the aegis of the Parks Department. On the other side of the building, the parking lots are under the control of the Department of the Treasury. The many layers of bureaucracy result in inefficient operations, according to advocates of the renovation plan. They note that the nationwide trend is for public markets to be managed by nonprofit corporations such as Soulard Restoration.

There are hints that the Soulard Restoration board will be broadened soon, but critics remain wary. Outside the market, on Seventh Street, 24-year-old Edward Schneider ruminates about the market controversy, holding a box of fall flowers under his arm. He decries the exclusivity of the decision-making process, which he says is rooted in the status quo. "They've provided no mechanism for public input," says Schneider. "I know Metropolis would be happy to elect a person to serve (on the nonprofit board). But yet they want the people who have made the decisions for the last 10 years to make them, again. They don't want any new input. That's what it feels like."

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.