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scenes from haymarket.

this is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave at the Harvard GSD last week as part of a seminar with Richard Sennett, on the subject of the Architecture of Cooperation. 

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This is Haymarket, Boston’s historic wholesale produce market.  It dates to the early 19th century as part of a market district that comprised Quincy Market and the fishing docks in the North End.

The market has existed in its current location since 1952, when the state relocated the market from Haymarket Square (nearby) in order to erect perhaps the most important — and impermeable — border in Boston’s history, the Central Artery.  The market’s current condition continues to be bound up in the story of the Artery.

Today, the Central Artery has been undergrounded through the Big Dig, and the boundary has been reimagined as a “seam”, the Rose Kennedy Greenway park.  The development of the Greenway has followed Downtown Boston’s overall redevelopment, which began with the Harbor cleanup and the development of the Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market festival marketplace in the 1970s.  The Haymarket vendors, referred to as “hawkers” in the 1952 ordinance and organized in the “Haymarket Pushcart Association”, are a historic remnant in the midst of this reimagining of space, capital, and consumption in the Downtown Boston area.  It runs on Friday and Saturdays, selling produce remnants at very low prices to bargain hunters from around the Boston area.

The maket is messy, smelly, noisy, rude, and only loosely regulated by the city and state.  Adjacent businesses lament the weekly disruption of their increasingly upscale clientele, and the city, though recognizing the heritage and food access value of the market, wishes there were some way to realize the economic value of the adjacent real estate.  Market vendors have changed too — vendors are increasingly immigrant and non-English speaking, though the original Italian families do still form a significant portion of the stalls.  Most of the vendors are no longer Boston residents, either; between this and their cash-only business, the city has an even harder time justifying their support in fiscal terms.

In fact, the market has begun to play a different role in the city’s fabric.  Though still a place for the frugal and under-resourced to “score” inexpensive fruits and vegetables, many shoppers value Haymarket for its nostalgia value and the environment of “authentic Boston” that it produces.   They describe the old-world hustle bustle, thick Boston accents, multicultural and socioeconomically diverse clientele, and impenetrable market customs as part of the appeal, inscribing cultural meaning onto this ephemeral expression of heritage in urban space.

What I wonder about is the extent to which the very ephemerality of this market, as a sort of impressionistic expression of this border condition — not only between physical spaces, but between time periods — is part of the driver of this new cultural value.  The dynamic nature of the market serves not only as an aesthetic stimulus but also as a cultural experience that makes local residents feel like tourists in their own city, consumers of the market itself, not of its wares.

It’s this attitude towards the market that interests me, because at this time the State is working to develop a permanent indoor farmer’s market in the site directly adjacent to the Haymarket.  Advocates for this new market also frame their efforts in terms of authenticity, saying that they want to revive the market tradition of the district and bring farm foods to the city once again.  So there’s kindof a battle between claims to authenticity happening in this space, and the territory on which the battle is waged is shifting, because of the temporariness of the architecture.

City planning officials hope to see Haymarket capture some of the revenue for the new market and establish new, permanent stalls as well as standardized, upgraded temporary tents, like those you’d see at a farmer’s market.  I wonder what the impact of this changed physical architecture might be on the sense of identity, cross-cultural exchange and expeditionism of the market.  Might Haymarket as it exists now, because of its ephemerality, constitute a “neutral ground” between traditions and constituencies in the city?

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