A decade after a dis­as­trous fire, can the re­built Eastern Mar­ket sur­vive its suc­cess?

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO -

Abig, fast fire spread through Eastern Mar­ket 10 years ago. Juan Jose and Con­suelo Canales, own­ers of Canales Deli, re­mem­ber it well be­cause their daugh­ter was 9 months preg­nant and couldn’t sleep. She saw the news break live on tele­vi­sion and called her mom and dad ur­gently. It’s the call ev­ery ven­dor at Eastern Mar­ket re­mem­bers vividly, even after a decade. The word spread as quickly as the fire it­self that night.

Thomas Jef­fer­son com­mis­sioned Eastern Mar­ket near the Washington Navy Yard in 1805. It was an open-air mar­ket that Adolf Cluss knew well work­ing in the area as a young man in the 1850s, but it had be­come di­lap­i­dated and run down by the time he be­came the city’s en­gi­neer. As part of a post-Civil War ef­fort to de­velop the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, larger mar­kets were erected to draw peo­ple to the District and es­tab­lish cen­ters of com­merce. Cluss re­designed Eastern Mar­ket, and it was com­pleted in 1873.

Most peo­ple think of mar­kets to­day as a se­ries of free-stand­ing awnings, much like the orig­i­nal Eastern Mar­ket, but Cluss built fortresses re­plete with ven­ti­la­tion, meat cel­lars and re­frig­er­a­tion. One of his mar­ket build­ings now serves as Alexan­dria City Hall. His third and fi­nal mar­ket was a larger and more prom­i­nent mar­ket along the Washington Canal, called Cen­ter Mar­ket, in­hab­it­ing the foot­print of what is now the Na­tional Archives at Ninth Street and Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue NW. It be­came ob­so­lete and was torn down dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.

Eastern Mar­ket also suf­fered from the shift­ing eco­nomic times, and the city moved to shut it down in 1929 when ven­dors strug­gled to make ends meet. But Eastern Mar­ket had al­ready built a strong bond with the Capi­tol Hill com­mu­nity. Civic or­ga­ni­za­tions and neigh­bors mounted a strong protest, and the mar­ket was spared. A sim­i­lar ef­fort had to be mo­bi­lized shortly after World War II when the city pro­posed clos­ing down all the re­main­ing pub­lic mar­kets.

To­day, one could go to Har­ris Teeter or Safe­way or find cheaper goods on­line, but the mar­ket is al­ways full and res­i­dents come for a more per­sonal touch. As a young cou­ple walks past Canales Deli, Juan Jose Canales stops them and says, “Hey, good to see you!” An­other woman from the Mar­ket Lunch walks up and asks, “Can I get eight pounds? It’s for Tommy.”

As the mer­chants made their way out of bed and over to the mar­ket on the night of the fire, more than 150 fire­fight­ers were on the scene and hun­dreds of neigh­bors watched help­lessly as parts of the roof col­lapsed and they won­dered whether the struc­ture would fall. Mel In­man Jr. of Mar­ket Poul­try re­calls be­ing able to sal­vage some chicken that had been in the freezer. “We took it home and ate it,” he said. “We thought we may be shut down for­ever. What were we gonna eat?”

Even while wa­ter can­nons were try­ing to save the struc­ture the next day, plans were in place to start a fund to pre­serve the mar­ket. ThenMayor Adrian Fenty (D) was there and pledged money for the restora­tion project and to pro­vide city as­sis­tance to save dis­placed ven­dors dur­ing the re­build­ing.

The red-brick shell was pre­served, but where sun beamed through the burnt-out roof, a new sky­light and air con­di­tion­ing ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem can be found. The pot-holed street is now cob­ble­stone, and the side­walk has been ex­panded to ac­com­mo­date out­side seat­ing. The bath­rooms were mod­ern­ized. Keith Ellingsworth, owner of Blue Ridge Cut­ting Board Co., re­calls, “The bath­rooms were rusty and re­mote, peel­ing paint and blaz­ing hot.” Now they, too, are air­con­di­tioned and cen­trally lo­cated.

The restora­tion is pay­ing div­i­dends for the whole area. Once a place you might not want to be in after dark, blighted store­fronts have been con­verted into restau­rants and the Hine Project de­vel­op­ment is near­ing com­ple­tion. A mar­ket built to draw peo­ple and com­merce into the city is now en­veloped in both. Some worry about its evo­lu­tion though, es­pe­cially with Trader Joe’s set to open. Will the area be­come too de­vel­oped and trendy to pre­serve the ac­tual mar­ket?

At ev­ery crit­i­cal junc­ture through­out its his­tory, though, the mar­ket has sus­tained it­self be­cause peo­ple — ven­dors and pa­trons alike — want to be part of a com­mu­nity. As Canales put it, “The com­mu­nity after all makes a mar­ket . . . it has a life.” After the mar­ket sur­vived a near-ter­mi­nal fire, the new de­vel­op­ment and re­tail that sur­rounds the mar­ket will test its life once again, and it will be up to the com­mu­nity to determine what truly makes up Eastern Mar­ket.


Eastern Mar­ket, par­tially re­flected in the win­dow of Capi­tol Hill Books’ front win­dow in 2011.

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