David O’Neil is digging into a take-out container full of chicken and grains, and, over the din of a Monday lunchtime crowd, talking passionately about his favorite topic–public markets. From stall to stall in Philadelphia’s 106-year-old Reading Terminal Market, vendors are doing a brisk business with local professionals, families, and T-shirt clad tourists.

But it’s not just the fresh flowers and falafel that attract the customers, O’Neil maintains. In an age of electronic mail, telephone banking, impersonal superstores, people are hungry for face to face interaction.

“Some guy did a study, the social ecology of markets versus supermarkets, and found that just the number of social interactions in a market are much higher,” says O’Neil, C’77, who lives in Roxborough. “In a supermarket you don’t talk to anybody–if you’re lucky. But here you talk to everybody. People open up in a market because they feel comfortable, they feel they’re part of something they can relate to on a visceral level, and that doesn’t happen in today’s traditional public spaces and retail environments.”

As the market’s former general manager for 10 years, it’s not surprising that O’Neil bumped into quite a few people he knows this afternoon. One of them, an architect who lives and works in the neighborhood, stops by the table to chat. O’Neil, now a consultant to public markets around the world, gives him a pamphlet about an event he was organizing in Seattle in September, the Fourth International Public Market Conference. It was the second conference he has coordinated for its sponsor, the non-profit Project for Public Spaces. “What we hope comes out of it,” he says, “is that markets get stronger, and people start to realize the role that markets play in revitalizing our communities, strengthening our local economies, and reconnecting pieces that still exist in the American landscape.”

The U.S. today has about 5,000 public markets. In contrast there are some 60,000 public markets throughout Europe, where, O’Neil says, “the tradition has never really been lost.” Most U.S. markets, including the Reading Terminal Market, started declining in the 1950’s with the growth of the suburbs, reliance on the automobile, the development of frozen foods, and the nationalization of food production and distribution, O’Neil explains. A back-to-earth movement helped rejuvenate an interest in public markets. “People were responding to things that were truly fresh, things that had flavor.”

Today there are still many fewer indoor public markets of the size and scale of the Reading Terminal Market–only about 100 across the country. At one point there were 28 indoor markets in Philadelphia alone. “But they’re coming back again,” O’Neil promises. “Cities are seeing the value of investing $5 million, $10 million, and $20 million on a market, because they see them as one of the greatest urban amenities.”

Because of the low start-up costs required for individual vendors, for instance, markets open up opportunities for people who otherwise couldn’t go into business.

From a local economic point of view, public markets are big winners, O’Neil adds. “If you go to Kmart, that money gets sucked out of town. There’s this very profound reinvestment that takes place in a public market, because the dollars stay local.” In Pennsylvania markets also play an important role in preserving green belts, and even Amish agricultural traditions, by supporting family farms. “We can even go so far as to say it reduces crime,” O’Neil says. “Because it creates a non-threatening environment to get people to talk to each other, relationships are established, there is accountability, and it’s a reclamation of public space by the people that live there.”

On his way to becoming a markets consultant, O’Neil followed a career path as diverse as the knockwurst and cannolis served up at the Reading Terminal Market. After graduating from Penn with a major in history, he worked on a short-lived weekly newspaper in Rhode Island, doing almost every job there–reporting, advertising, sales and layout. He then went on to New York to work with an inventor, marketing an electric-car project. Afterwards O’Neil went on an archaeological dig in Yugoslavia.

He later returned to Philadelphia, where he taught English to foreign business people, tutored for a literacy project and waited on tables. Seeking dialogue for a murder mystery he was writing, he asked for a scooping job at Bassett’s Ice Cream in the Reading Terminal Market. “The market was a wonderfully seedy place at that time,” O’Neil recalls. On his first day the president of Reading Railroad, whom he already knew from several years before, passed by and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?” The president invited him to his office and “told me it was high time that I joined the world of industry.” He asked O’Neil if he would be interested in working for the market, trying to lure more businesses and clean up the place. He officially became the general manager a couple of years later and it wasn’t long before the operation was profitable again.

It was through word of mouth that O’Neil gradually built up his consulting business. “People were always asking me, ‘How did you do it?’ and ‘Would you help us out?'” He estimates that he’s worked on most of the large urban markets in the United States, as well as many smaller ones. O’Neil may think locally but he travels globally, lending his expertise in Zimbabwe, Kansas City, and Niagara Falls among other places. He’s helped create new markets, including one for Pacific Islander in New Zealand and one in Philadelphia’s Norris Square.

He has also taken away ideas from hundreds of markets around the world. One of his favorite locales is the immense market of Kashgar, an oasis town in the largely desert expanse of western China. “All these groups–a lot of them minorities in China–all come in on market day, so you just see stuff and people and colors like you have never seen before. It’s unbelievable. You can see handmade furniture, ground-up pigments used for making paints, white camels, herds of sheep, everything. People come by horse, by caravan, I’ve never seen so many bicycles in one place in my entire life.”

O’Neil also has collected thousands of historical images of markets around the world to document a cultural phenomenon that he believes has been taken for granted for far too long. “Markets are the original human gathering place,” he says. “They are one of the most central institutions to all people in all parts of the world.”

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