Eastern Market: More than 125 Years in the Making

The oldest historic public market in the U.S., is located in Detroit, opened its “stalls” in 1891. Over this stretch of time, the market and the adjacent Eastern Market District have retained their economic vitality despite dramatic changes to both the City of Detroit and a changing approach to how we feed ourselves.

For 126 years Eastern Market has been about food and conviviality. This fundamental inclusionary aspect of the market stems from a belief that this place is where, in reality, here immigrants got a start in their quest to achieve the American dream. Countless family business empires were born in this historic market.

In the first decades of its existence, Eastern Market, like other markets in the Detroit (Western Market and Chene Ferry Market), was primarily a place for wholesale commerce related to Michigan grown crops. Six days per week hundreds of local farmers descended on Eastern Market during the harvest season. The market’s retail component was always strong; however, the Saturday Market’s purpose in those days was to provide deep discounts to customers so growers could clear the shelves to start each new week off with fresh product.

Late in the 1920s, the Detroit Produce Terminal opened on south Fort Street providing a central distribution point for crops grown in faraway places and shipped to Detroit via rail. As national food systems changed favoring larger producers in Florida, Texas, and especially California, the wholesale role of the market declined while food processing and manufacturing began to expand.

Eventually, public markets in the city began to close, but Eastern Market continued on its path to survival, though both its wholesale and retail markets were met with increasing competition. Grocery stores took away retail business while national growers continued to whittle away market share of regional growers.

Then in the 1980s, Eastern Market District stakeholders began to get weary and look for ways to revitalize the market and the district itself. Not unlike many downtowns and main streets across the nation, which began their long trudge back about that time, the authenticity of the vibrancy of Eastern Market remained highly valued, and the tradition of discount pricing helped keep the enticement level up.

At this time, the Eastern Market Merchants Association (EMMA) helped organize market area retailers who conducted promotions and events to increase traffic, the Eastern Market Advancement Corporation (EMAC) worked to organize food processors and distributors to help improve the district as a place for their businesses, and the City of Detroit continued to manage market operations.

A major growth spurt of food processing quickly turned sour in the mid-1990s as three large food processing firms closed when a wave of consolidation swept through the food industry, similar to that of the brewing industry that resulted in the loss of Stroh’s brewery a decade earlier.

A series of studies concluded that Eastern Market would benefit from greater coordination of management and development efforts culminating in 2006 when EMMA and EMAC merged to create one non-profit entity – Eastern Market Corporation (EMC) – which in turn entered into an agreement with the City of Detroit to take on the management and promotion of the market and market district.

Managed by a 21-member Board of Directors that is comprised of an equal split of market vendors, market district merchants, City of Detroit representatives, and individuals with specific interest that can benefit the market.

Over the last few years, the work has paid off. More restaurants and shops have opened, food processors are expanding, attendance for market days is growing, use of the market for alternative events is exploding, and property values and investment are on the rise.

While this growth is desperately needed, a fear is that without careful attention to market trends, Eastern Market District will end up like the Meat Packing District in lower Manhattan or the Fulton Market area in Chicago’s West Loop. Albeit trendy and fashionable, bars, lofts, and boutiques in those places priced food businesses out of the neighborhoods and moderate income residents have little reason to engage when the tenant mix is heavy in white-table cloth restaurants and posh boutiques.

Even with the failure of Detroit real estate over the last fifty years, its food industry has the highest percentage of entry-level, living-wage jobs, critical to reducing high unemployment rates in Detroit neighborhoods. 1,500 jobs are at risk if expansion space is not accommodated but. On the other hand, the opportunity to double that number applies if space becomes available for the market’s food makers. The older buildings of the market district can then be repurposed for other uses without fear of the market district losing its eccentric and inclusive soul.

Eastern Market was identified in 2013 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as one of the 18 most iconic public spaces in the United States. Chosen for its rich economic democracy represented in the wide range of produce harbored under the sheds – from exotic mushrooms at 6am to last-ditch, end-of-day, tomatoes, this symbolism represents the full spectrum of customers that visit Eastern Market. Efforts are being made to make sure it stays that way.