Eastern Market heats up
As it enters its busy season, market leader Dan Carmody discusses its past, present and future
Published: June 15, 2011
MT: You've spoken about local food systems for the area. What's going on at the Eastern Market?
DC: It's a gem. It's a platform to build this local food system up from. So let's look at what we've got here. We've got a retail market year-round that's Saturdays-only, attracting 10,000 in January and from 30,000 to 40,000 per day May through September. We have a wholesale market with 40 to 50 vendors mid-June to November. We also have this clustering of 80 small-scale processors and distributors around the market. The clustering and comingling is the part that others cities don't have. To boil it all down, that's the fundamental asset that we have. We also have this funky, offbeat, authentic neighborhood that has a lot of smallerish buildings that are part of the ecology as well. New companies can't afford to buy new buildings, so what might look like crap to suburbanites, who want to see the place cleaned up a little, looks like gold to me, because we can buy that building affordably, go in there and start to work and, hopefully, be successful enough to outgrow it. We've got a greening project going on down here. We also have a very likely chance of a nonprofit converting much of a vacant 104,000-square-foot industrial building across the street from that market garden into a 3-million-pound-a-year tilapia production facility. When you get right down to it, the most important thing we're about right now is a place that can provide significant numbers of jobs on the processing side. We're trying to restore the market share that we enjoyed in 1950. The Shed 5 renovation includes a shared-use community kitchen, which we want to use to help incubate a new generation of niche processors. The fee for kitchen use is $20 per hour. For $75, you can preview your product in front of 30,000-40,000 Saturday market customers. (See 1.usa.gov/ccNWE6 for details of Michigan's newly enacted Cottage law.) We want to domicile MSU's product development center on-site, working with clients from our kitchen. We want to work with some of the job-training folks. We want to provide an environment for peer-to-peer culture where people can hang out at places like Supino's and Russell Street Deli to exchange ideas that will result in the emergence of more specialty food products. The Greening of Detroit will have a wash-and-sort facility. We hope some of these programs will create a weekday retail experience with permanent vendors. The one that exists now is the Gratiot Central Market, primarily a great butcher shop. At this end of the market we want to build a destination restaurant that will draw people during the week, one that will use local sourcing. We need to have a much more elaborate education center. Presently, the Gratiot Central Market is a two-block walk from Shed 2, a walk through the parking lot and through a bridge over the expressway that is clogged with vendors. We want to move them to a promenade in the parking lot, making access to the other side of he expressway a pleasant experience and more accessible.
MT: If you didn't believe in Detroit, you wouldn't be here today. How do you envision the city's future?
DC: Detroit has the opportunity — because it's more broken than other American cities — to write some new rules and to try some things outside of the box that other places won't: to experiment, to see what works and what doesn't, to be open to experimentation. Many of the problems that Detroit has are the same problems that are affecting the rest of the country. We've just got a worse strain of it. To a certain extent, depending on how the overall economy goes, the rest of the country could look a lot like Detroit. Food is typically one of the central organizing elements. Food is where justice meets economic vitality and meets environmental sustainability. If you don't have those three things, you can't have a society that endures.
MT: What so you mean by justice?
DC: You can't have a food system where 20 percent of the people at the lower end of the economic totem pole eat only one-seventh of the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that the people at the top eat. Society can't afford the health care costs of treating diabetes and hypertension and coronary disease after they're contracted because of their poor diet. We as a society have to figure out a way that people of all incomes can afford and can access healthy eating. The Eastern Market is much loved in this region because it's where food and place come together. So the conviviality is every bit as important in that engagement as the good food is here is to changing that mix as it affects our diet, as it affects the health of the region, and as it affects the country in terms of what people eat.
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