Eastern Market heats up
As it enters its busy season, market leader Dan Carmody discusses its past, present and future
Published: June 15, 2011
It's summertime, which means the Mack Avenue exit off I-75 backs up on Saturday mornings when thousands stream into Detroit's Eastern Market in search of farm-fresh food. Though it has been a Detroit tradition for decades, it has only picked up steam since Dan Carmody came to Detroit three years ago to assume leadership of the historic Detroit Eastern Market. He has lofty ambitions for our city's gem. His career includes time as a city planner, bar and restaurant owner, and 20 years working for nonprofits specializing in downtown revitalization.
Metro Times: What brought you to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Ind.?
Dan Carmody: I first saw the Eastern Market in the spring of 2007 on a Sunday. There was nobody around, and it looked like some kind of Mel Gibson apocalypse scene, a preface to what I saw on a Saturday when it's teeming with people. It's like no other neighborhood in North America. When the Eastern Market went to find a president, somehow my name got to the headhunter.
MT: What specifically did you like about the market?
DC: It's a professional challenge to figure out how to make every day more like Saturday. There's no silver bullet. I didn't really fully comprehend the depth of what goes on here. It looks at times like a crumbling mass of urbanity. What Detroit has in the Eastern Market is in many ways the last of its kind and perhaps the first of a new generation. It's the last of a kind of local food district that every city had that was significantly built before 1950 — a large market where food was brought into the region. It was typically surrounded by a number of food-related businesses. All of those places in other cities were dismantled by a combination of things: the increasing scale of food distribution and processing activities, and the underlying value of the real estate of those food districts, which became cooler for bars and boutiques and lofts. So Detroit's is the last one that still stands, and the fact is we have the Saturday retail market, which is spectacular, but we also have, Monday through Friday, from mid-June through mid-November, a very active wholesale market, where 40 or 50 regional growers come here from midnight to 5 a.m. to supply principally suburban grocery store chains. Detroit has probably the best batch of any metropolitan area in the country in terms of the depth of high-quality, independently owned suburban grocers. The reason our wholesale market still exists is because of Michigan's agricultural diversity, because we have a sort of a low-cost place to work out of, because there are a number of substantial buyers that don't exist in other markets.
MT: How are you changing the market?
DC: We have four missions. One is to run the market on a daily basis. The second is to imagine, fund and implement a series of capital improvements to the market. The third is to serve as an official economic development organizer to strengthen the market for the Eastern Market district. Fourth is to work with a number of collaborators and partners to strengthen the regional food systems in southeast Michigan. Our general mission to take this place back in time, and to bring some of those jobs back that we've sacrificed to these, quite frankly, pretty efficient systems that have taken a lot of the employment out to where, structurally, there aren't enough jobs, not only in Detroit, but in most major metropolitan areas in the United States, especially food industry jobs that range from the highest skilled, highest talent jobs to entry-level jobs, minimal scale jobs. We need all of those kind of jobs. So in the Eastern Market, we break it down. What is this thing called a local food system? You've got to grow it, process it, distribute it and retail it. In our case you've got to focus on two forms of education. One is educating consumers how to deal with foods that are not quite as processed, that there are means of cooking other than a microwave and that aren't completely inconvenient, that don't require a Ph.D.; and educating people about nutritional values, educating more people about how to grow stuff.
MT: What role does urban agriculture play in your plan?
DC: Actually, Detroit is blessed in that regard because of the Greening of Detroit, Earthworks, Capuchin and Michigan State University's Gardening Resource Center, which is one of the best urban farming training programs in the country. Down the street from where we sit today, at the corner of Wilkins and Orleans, Greening of Detroit will build its third model garden, an urban market garden to showcase specialty crop production and show how you do a 2-1/2-acre site that will hopefully support up to three jobs from that scale of production.
MT: Is there enough farmable land in the city to have an impact on the overall local market?
DC: The community gardening movement in Detroit is profound. In 2004, there were 80 community gardens. Anticipated this spring are 1,600 community gardens, with about 80 percent retained annually. While much of the food is grown for the farmers' consumption, some of it is now being sold in the market and, in some cases, to restaurants like Supino's and the Russell Street Deli. Food is the third most important objective of community gardening. The first is getting neighbors to work together, positively, constructively, without waiting for anyone to do something for them. They're actually taking steps to make their neighborhoods better. Secondly, it's the best engagement and education tool in changing diets; better than food stamps, better than food vouchers, better than increased supply. When a kid pulls a carrot out of the ground and begins to understand that the carrot is supposed to be normal and the Twinkie is supposed to be weird, rather than the other way around, that's profound. Community gardening is about empowerment, education and engagement, and then it's about food, in that order. A problem of the local and sustainable ag people is that many of them are Luddites, refusing to accept the new technology as part of the solution. To me there's no such thing as old technology or new technology as much as appropriate technology.
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