Cities are known for their food markets: the Borough Market in London, the Bastille Market in Paris, and La Boquería in Barcelona. (Check out this website for a great look at La Boquería and how markets market themselves.) While Boston’s Haymarket district may not be as glamorous as these European counterparts, it exemplifies the role of a market in the geographic, political, and socioeconomic space of a city. Haymarket is a contentious space – a place where tensions of race and class collide beneath a discussion of who is selling food, where it comes from, who buys it, and where. Does historic occupation justify where the open-air stalls of Haymarket stand today? Is the reality of low-income shoppers buying produce less valuable than the marketable idea of locally-grown food on display in a glistening indoor space? These issues are still being debated, but ultimately I think Haymarket is most valuable to us as it is now: a space questioning power structures and openly displaying the diversity present in Boston that other market plans attempt to hide.
The current debate surrounding Haymarket reflects the tendency of food to mirror the desires of the privileged classes, who have nostalgia for the “old ways” of quaint, bustling downtown food markets. (This article briefly discusses the possibility of adding a more up-scale public market and really highlights the diversity and quirkiness of Haymarket pushcarts.) These markets, however, are preferred to exist on specific terms: stalls must be organized, the space must be clean, and the food aesthetically pleasing. While this attracts crowds and increases sales, idealizing the experience of purchasing food further distances us from where our food comes from. Potatoes don’t come up from the ground freshly scrubbed, and most tomatoes are not perfectly plump. Many food markets, beyond the eyes of tourists and government officials, are noisy, busy, and not always clean. And many people wouldn’t recognize a freshly unearthed potato as food.
The market system appeals to us because we want, or have been taught by increasingly popular food movements that we want, to be close to our food. But what does being “close” mean? Does it mean having a personal relationship with the man you buy kale from (who may or may not be the farmer who actually grew the kale) or actually growing it yourself? Food production and transportation systems are messy and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. They involve growing, watering, butchering, processing, packaging, and shipping food. But a food market, where we make choices and interact with vendors and other shoppers, can be finessed (through organization or measures of exclusivity) into a safe space that fosters a “close” relationship with food. An enclosed market space with beautiful architecture, what part of Haymarket might become, belies the real relationships surrounding our food – stories of immigration, poverty, privilege, and access. The identities of who buys and sells at Haymarket – third-generation Italian pushcart vendors and newer Central or South American immigrants, single mothers on a tight budget and graduate students pinching their pennies – reflect the character and diversity of Boston itself.
Interested in checking out Haymarket for yourself? This guide has some great photos and details the history of the market district as well as when to arrive and how to pick the best produce for the best price. It warns curious tourists that Haymarket is not a farmer’s market! Instead, it is “Boston’s closest equivalent” to “outdoor markets in Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America.”