By David K. O’Neil

A postcard of the now-gone market by the old Philadelphia courthouse.

As a carrot-haired, thirty-something Thomas Jefferson drafted a declaration of independence in his second floor Philadelphia apartment, it would be safe to say he drew inspiration from what he saw (and heard and smelled) in the bustling market outside his windows that summer–a slightly chaotic and disheveled place that embodied the democratic spirit of opportunity and freedom.

Simple freedoms play out every day in markets: the freedom to gather, choose, disagree or haggle (a good old market word). After all, markets are where there is–for a brief moment–a sense of equality among all players. And beneath that sense that all men (and women) are created equal is the knowing reassurance that the market will provide us basic provisions to set upon the table and nourish us for another day. That’s an important part of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What made markets appealing in Jefferson’s time is no less relevant today. As many towns ponder the future of their markets–such as whether to invest in permanent sheds and market halls or just some simple improvements–a quick look at the history of market sites and structures can help illuminate what makes good sense going forward.

Markets in America started as informal, open-air affairs, but in time many reorganized under covered sheds because their presence was seen as a stabilizing and convenient necessity for growing towns. Some sheds were designed with a second story “headhouse” with government offices above the stalls, borrowing an architectural style found in England. This style became more common on this side of the Atlantic and many towns combined the market house with City Hall.

But does a permanent structure actually improve opportunities for commerce and socialization? Most “permanent” market sheds, halls and districts in this country have disappeared, victims of varied economic and social forces–but the deciding factor was not whether they did or didn’t have a roof over their rutabagas.

The experience of a market is far more important to its success than any issues involving permanence or structure. In all the market surveys Project for Public Spaces has done around the world, the question “what do you like best about this market?” is always answered the same–it is the “experience” that attracts. The “3 Ps”–people, products and personality, plus that deeper sense of equality and reassurance–are what draw customers. Snazzy designs rarely register beyond a blip of a response.

A passage in Cairo's Khan al Khalili bazaar, pictured in an old postcard.

The experience starts in your mind as you enter the market, smelling the peaches before seeing them. And the sounds–buzzing voices, the patter of feet, jingling coins, the confident whack of a butcher’s knife–all offer comfort somehow, assuring us that so many fellow citizens (and what an assortment of sizes and faces!) share the same feelings of need and desire and fulfillment as we do.

Of course, there are market structures that are fantastic. The arcades, bricked streets and wafts of strong coffee of Seattle’s Pike Place Market are legendary. The architectural grandeur of the Boqueria in Barcelona lifts even a bad mood. The seductive mazes of the Khan al Khalili bazaar in Cairo transcend time itself.

Year-round markets that have survived in the U.S.–there are less than a hundred left out of the thousands that once operated–are damn lucky in most cases, but the reasons why they are still here are worth noting: a fine location, a quality experience and an effective form of governance or oversight. Most of these markets started in the open air and evolved into permanent structures. The halls or sheds were the second, third or fourth iteration of a market that changed and adapted over time, the result of vendors and managers ongoing observation and adjustment. Once achieved, a market wears permanence like a patina, hard-earned and silently beautiful.

Developing new market halls carries bushels of risk (less so with sheds). They demand so much time and money that the all-important experiential aspects tend to get lost or fragmented. The pressure to succeed also pushes the projects to spend more money on the building, to make it nicer and prettier. But these embellishments are as likely to repel people as attract them. If a newly opened market looks too fancy, it can intimidate shoppers by connoting high prices and a hoity-toity attitude that turns people off. Its vendors are often stuck with needlessly high rent, labor and operating costs.

Sheds, on the other hand, are far less expensive and easier to fund and develop. They are still open to the vagaries of nature (good and bad), depending on the location and design. Yet they can also sport a degree of weatherproofing and be outfitted with utilities. A well-designed shed can be a boon for vendors and customers as well as an attractive civic structure, even when empty.

Faidley's Seafood has sold at Baltimore's Lexington Market since 1886.

Finding a market site and securing funding can be as daunting as deciding what kind of market structure to build. Historically, city governments were very supportive of markets, providing prime locations that became focal points for larger commercial districts. Markets and market systems fueled the success of many a metropolis in North America and supported local producers. Towns not only built and operated markets, many created “market departments” with municipal funding to properly maintain and promote markets. Baltimore still has a department of markets–the last major city in the country to maintain one.

Public support for markets slowly faded as the markets themselves closed down. The last great influx of cash came during the Depression, and it proved that money alone was not sufficient to sustain public markets. At the time, the WPA paid to renovate many older markets and build new ones. While some WPA-funded market sheds are still in use (great examples can be found in Ann Arbor, New Orleans, and Minneapolis), most failed. Building a market is the easy part; providing the experience, people and products is the true key to success.

Today, we are seeing these ingredients come together with very little support from government. In fact, the success of the market movement has been driven by dedicated citizens and farmers who often face opposition from public officials. For institutions that have been so central to the development of our towns, our economies and our municipal health–markets are grossly understudied, under-understood (not misunderstood) and underappreciated as vehicles for the common good.

As a result, current public policy on markets is scattershot. Trickles of support are evident with coupon programs, promotional dollars and the occasional earmark for pet projects, but much more could be done to help markets (and their communities) thrive. The feds could appropriate capital dollars and support agriculture policies that help small farmers; state and county government could support land use planning that invests in and protects foodshed, and watersheds, which in turn support local food and ecosystems; local governments could provide good locations, security, utilities, insurance and trash removal.

Enlightened policy should support markets by tapping into the instincts of people who are driving the current revival: the farmers and shoppers. This would enable these two groups – informed and agile decision making to continue and not be thwarted by well-meaning but awkward directives from city hall or Capitol Hill. Government support should help when needed, then get out of the way and let markets be markets.

Markets must not become so regulated or precious that their life and spontaneity are squeezed out. They must stay unfettered by convention and remain, as D. H. Lawrence said in his essay Mornings in Mexico, a “babel and a hubbub”, a place “to buy and to sell but above all to commingle”.