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