Markets

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The other night, my sister’s boyfriend said: “When I arrive somewhere new, I head for the nearest market“, on the grounds that it gives him the best sense – and you can usually use all your senses – of what a place is really like.

He then proceeded to recount a horrible tale involving good intentions, dead kittens and stir fry, which I’m not going to repeat here. All I’ll say is that if you see a live animal for sale at a market, it’s probably going to end up as someone’s lunch and there’s probably not a whole lot you can do about that. Sorry.

Anyway, even after hearing that story, I still love markets. And I’m lucky enough to live near lots of them. In or around my patch of Hackney you’ll find Broadway Market just off London Fields, the nearby but newer Netil Market and, in super-trendy Clapton, Chatsworth Road Market. I’ve also heard good things, from a reasonably reliable source, about Walthamstowe Market, allegedly “Europe’s longest street market”.

But my nearest market and my favourite one is Ridley Road Market. It’s an old-school east London market which, excitingly, was apparently the inspiration for the street market in EastEnders (if that means nothing to you, don’t worry about it). None of that cupcakes or organic soap nonsense at Ridley Road – here you can have fruit and veg, underwear, or cheap electronics, plus a whole host of other genuinely useful stuff.

Many of the goods for sale at Ridley Road are associated with one of the ethnic communities found in the area – you’ll find West African cloth, fresh Indian naan bread, Caribbean carnival CDs and more. You’ll also find one of my favourite bars in London, perfect for a dose of tropical in what is often a grey and cold city.

Unfortunately, the multicultural nature of the market has led to some arguably racist hysteria about the nature of the products on sale there in recent years. More happily, the mix of cultures and products available has also inspired some very creative people to set up stall.

Earlier this summer, artist Lorenzo Vitturi exhibited the results of a year-long project centred around Ridley Road Market at Fishbar gallery, also in Hackney. After taking photos and collecting objects and substances from the market, Vitturi began a process of “decomposition and re-composition” to create a series of artworks. These mix together, say, meat and hair dye or fabric and fruit in surprising and sometimes disturbing combinations.

He then took many of these works back to exhibit at the market, at his own stall and he also gave photographs to stallholders to display. “Initially perceived as a chaos,” he says in his notes about the exhibition, “the market has, day after day, revealed to me its own order and harmony…It became really important for me to take the work back into the community to complete the cycle.”

Dalston Coathanger also thinks that markets, and Ridley Road Market in particular, have something to say about social chaos and harmony. This organisation makes T-shirts with slogans and designs inspired by the summer 2011 rioting in London, some of which took place pretty near Ridley Road, and sells them at the market where they hope their range will help people “explore social and political issues that are still at the forefront of minds across the country.”

Over to New Orleans, and this city has fabulous – and though-provoking – markets too. When I’m there, I always end up at the French Market at some point. I love the great food and drink, but also all the other good things that seem to bear the French Market tag  – free music, food festivals, and one of my favourite WWOZ shows.

I also really like the Crescent City Farmers’ Market – on my last visit, I got the best cinnamon roll I’ve ever eaten and a free peach – what more could you want for breakfast? But this market too is about more than just one meal. Farmers’ markets in general are great for reconnecting us to what good food tastes like – and why eating local and seasonal is often a good idea. And when I was there, they also had music and childrens’ activities going on, showing that markets are about building communities as well as making dinner.

Recently, I was reading about what’s going on in the St. Roch neighbourhood in the Bywater, and was excited to hear that its market has been redeveloped. It’s a beautiful old building, with plenty of history – it was built in 1875 and a 1930s renovation was part of one of the original Works Progress Administration projects after the Great Depression. It gradually fell into disuse during subsequent decades, however, and finally closed post-Katrina.

But now the city government has invested $3.7 million to redevelop the space into a community market, due to open very, very soon. It’s part of a wider renewal project in the St. Roch area, which also includes a park, art walk and new streetcar, which again shows that markets can’t be separated from the communities around them and that more markets are generally a sign of more good things for everyone. Unless, that is, you’re a kitten. Sorry (again).

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