I never thought of the present-day farmers market as the modern equivalent of the Greek Agora or the Roman Forum. Certainly a marketplace, like the historic Eastern Market near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is a community space for multiple purposes only one of which is commercial. On any given day, but especially on weekends, the market teems with people. Some buy goods of course but many just stroll with their kids and their dogs and their friends. The rituals of community have benefits that transform us as many notable observers of cities have suggested.
For anyone who walks through Eastern Market, it’s often hard to experience the place because the senses are bombarded at every turn. The sensory overload comes from the smell of the bakery, the sound of children on skateboards or scooters, the taste of ripe produce, the embrace of a friend you happen to meet, or the sight of the restored market’s brick façade juxtaposed with the modern craft vendors. It’s hard to get beyond the cornucopia of the market and all it offers as it fulfills its intended purpose.
But it’s more than just a marketplace; more than fresh food and local crafts. The market is the city in microcosm. “If I understand the market, I understand the city and its ability to sustain and nurture the good life and the healing of political culture.”
That insight comes from Dan Kemmis, the former mayor of Missoula, Montana, and the author of The Good City and the Good Life. For Kemmis, the restored market in Missoula brought a wholeness and livability to his city that can only be quantified in the most spiritual terms. “At the market we trade surplus for deficiency, we round ourselves in human terms.” Whether in Missoula or on Capitol Hill, the market proves to be a place that sustains and nurtures a community and a sense of citizenship.
At about the time the Missoula market was reborn, Hmong immigrants in considerable numbers began to settle in Missoula following the ravages of war in Southeast Asia. Steeped in the land and what it could produce, these new residents found the market to be a gateway to their new home – not just a place to sell produce but a place to learn a new culture.
More recently, at Eastern Market after a devastating fire destroyed the interior and roof of the building, an outpouring of support from many quarters sustained the merchants for months until a temporary structure could be built and opened. The Capitol Hill Community Foundation distributed nearly $500,000 to vendors and their employees who depended on the market for their livelihoods until the historic building was restored. This marketplace meant so much to so many that the prospect of its loss was unthinkable. The community’s response was as true a measure of citizenship as any that might be offered.
In his writings, Dan Kemmis reminds us that no less a figure than Pericles has something to teach us about how good cities make good citizens. For my part, I like the words that Kemmis himself chose. “This is the work of cities . . . to be the good and lasting place that anchors our very understanding of what it means to be a citizen.”