An idea which came and went -- and then came and went again -- is getting another tryout in Victoria, B.C., where a non-profit organization is preparing to open a permanent, year-round, indoor public market.
By the 1830s, butchers were already chafing at the constraints imposed by public markets, where city officials had a tremendous amount of say in inventory, pricing and opening hours. In response to vendor and customer complaints, many municipalities privatized food sales by the turn of the century, with city planners holding up the surviving markets as urban blights.
"I am not enthusiastic about Public Markets," Charles Mulford Robinson wrote in a 1910 report to the civic leaders of Waterloo, Iowa.
According to Gregory Alexander Donforio, who chronicled the shaper of the City Beautiful movement for a 2007 Gastronomica article, Robinson took exception to the litter, congestion and stench linked to public markets. For Robinson and like-minded planners, the realities of keeping a population fed were an impediment to grandeur. Although public markets experienced a short renaissance just before World War I, when the USDA opened an Office of Public Markets and Massachusetts required cities with more than 10,000 residents to maintain market buildings, the institution faded in the face of the A&P.
Pike Place is one of the few remaining public markets which date back to the concept's second heyday. Yet the number of public market nationwide is growing steadily, thanks to a renewed appreciation of the advantages cited by nineteenth-century supporters. As Helen Tangires wrote in her 2003 Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, markets were supposed to encourage food safety and security through government-led monitoring and vendor accountability. Today, that's typically described as "knowing your farmer."
There are now 100 public markets in the U.S., with many of them established in the last 25 years. San Diego recently opened a new market, with Grand Rapids, Mich. set to follow suit this summer. And a long-debated plan to establish a market in Portland is now in the fundraising stages. But the next public market to emerge in the Pacific Northwest is likely to be the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson, readying for a May 1 debut.
The 18,000 square-foot market will feature 11 permanent vendors, a commercial kitchen and a changing line-up of farmers who can reserve $40 day tables on short notice. Smaller kiosks are available as one-year leases, allowing aspiring entrepreneurs -- such as the couple planning to sell baked potatoes with locally-produced cheese, chives and bacon -- to audition their food-focused business plans.
"This is where to come to find out what Vancouver and Vancouver Island are all about," says administrator Maryanne Carmack.
Although developers assume the market will draw plenty of tourists, it was assembled to serve everyday grocery shoppers: having secured a butcher, baker and produce dealer, Carmack is still holding a space for a seafood retailer. "It's essential we have seafood," she says.
Victoria's first public market opened in 1861, but failed almost immediately. Three decades later, the city invested heavily in a market with 60 stalls, a bandstand and decorative glass roof, but vendors were put off by the city's bureaucracy, leaving the market to languish mostly unoccupied. Ross Crockford, author of Victoria: The Unknown City, writes that the city considered re-purposing the building as an animal morgue. The market was briefly popular during the World Wars, when gas rationing kept grocery shoppers from traveling long distances, but the city in 1959 razed the market to make room for a parking lot.
Still, Carmack is confident contemporary shoppers will flock to the new market.
"I think people and their shopping habits are changing," she says.