To Market

I was feeling a little bad about living just a stone’s throw from the Florida Avenue Markets and never visiting, especially since they may not be around that much longer and everyone’s getting their dander up as a result, so on Saturday, the wife and I hopped the Red Line two stops to check the place out. Note: a real blogger would have taken some pictures to go along with this post; draw whatever conclusions you’re going to draw, people.

Ok, so, bad news first. Those commenters that note the place isn’t any “grittier” than Dupont on a Sunday? Sorry, try again. The markets are not what you might call inviting; they’re poorly signed, dirty, and generally require some initiative to figure out. It’s not hard to imagine that a lot of people who might adore Dupont and Eastern Market would never set foot on these grounds. I don’t think it’s unfair to call the space underutilized, either. The area as a whole is bustling, but it’s also quite spread out with plenty of unused space. If underutilized means that the area could accomodate a lot more people, then I think that applies also.

But is it blighted? No way; in fact, it’s one of the coolest places you’ll find in the District. The setting, for one thing, is amazing. Tucked in between New York and Florida Avenues, with downtown encroaching across the tracks and Union Station and the Capitol visible to the south, the area has an urban feel to it that you don’t find many places in the city. The market stalls themselves are far more disorderly and utilitarian than is normal for the District. It feels real in a way that we don’t normally get here; trucks unload crates of vegetables and boxes of ice-packed fish. Restaurateurs line-up to fill their vehicles with supplies of condiments or cuts of meat. It’s very Chinatown (NYC, not DC). It also feels like it ought to be off limits to regular folks. You go into a store and find enormous piles of touristy mershandise, clearly destined for the sidewalk shops of the Mall, along with boxes of sodas and prepackaged food and convenient store items that you see in all the little corner bodegas that haven’t yet been pushed out by the CVS. This is where all those guys shop: the ethnic restaurateur, the corner store owner, and the FBI sweatshirt guy. It’s pretty sweet. Additional positives include a generally good farmer’s market that reminded me quite a bit of a state fair, and the fact the place has to be the largest collection of truly unique kitsch items anywhere in the city (Lisa had to drag me, kicking and screaming, away from a green plastic model of the Sacred Mosque with a digital clock radio face).

But what to do with the place? I think these markets present a real challenge to the DC Council, because they could become one of the great landmarks and destinations of the city, but only with careful investment and concern for maintaining the natural vitality that exists there. The current buildings have incredible potential, and the chaotic and small-scale retail environment is very charming, but it would be so incredibly easy to just tear it all down, start over, and reap the rewards of easy property tax revenues. The location is too good to fail over the long term, so it will take real foresight to try to avoid the easy, but charmless, way out.

Finally, Lisa and I found an incredible item of DC-themed kitsch that’s just waiting to be given to someone as a gift of some sort. We bought two, and we’re doing our best to figure out who most deserves one. Help us out! To whom should we give our badass gifts?