"You can count on seeing the same people here every week, the vendors and the other shoppers," Chong says. "It's a totally different group of people than I know from work or anywhere else, and that's what I like about it. There are people from all different cultures all together here."
The sense of community that blooms between the farmers' tents and vendors' tables is a key dynamic to outdoor markets, and in post-Katrina New Orleans, its appeal has proven positively magnetic. The Upper Ninth Ward Farmers Market, created in November 2006, is one of five new markets to set up shop in the area since the federal levee failure. They join three more New Orleans farmers markets and two art markets that predate Katrina and were brought back after the flood. Together, they now fill the local calendar with weekly and monthly community events that require little infrastructure and yield social and economic dividends on many levels.
The new markets have been formed for different reasons and provide different fare, with some emphasizing farm produce and others art, crafts and flea-market finds. But their organizers share a belief that along the way they provide venues for community activism at a time when residents are craving civic engagement and social interaction.
"We formed the market on the whole idea of community-building, of giving people a chance to get together," says Jackie Richard, director of the Beacon of Hope recovery organization in Lakeview that hosted its first monthly Harrison Avenue Marketplace in August.
The market was held in the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store in the heart of the flood-ravaged but rebounding Lakeview commercial corridor, and by any measure it was a success. Richard estimates the market had 2,000 visitors in the span of three hours, more than twice the number she initially expected. People brought their own lawn chairs to hang out. All the food vendors sold out. The number of vendors to sign up for the second market, scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 19, quickly grew by 20 percent to 60 stores, restaurants and organizations. People remarked about how heartwarming it was to see the colorful chalk drawings children left on the pavement during the market, and Richard says they continue to express gratitude for having a new public space to share a good time with their neighbors.
"These are the kinds of things that lift our spirits in Lakeview," Richard says.
A spirit of togetherness and optimism pervades the new markets. Proponents see them both as symbolic antidotes to the imperceptible pace of some official recovery efforts and as vehicles for hands-on economic development in the neighborhoods that host them.
The Renaissance Project, the same nonprofit that organizes the weekly Upper Ninth Ward Farmers Market, launched its monthly Fridays at the Roch event in August as a combination farmers market, community concert and craft fair held under the oaks of the St. Roch Avenue neutral ground. The after-work event quickly turned into something like a civic-minded happy hour as neighbors from the surrounding blocks gathered with go-cup cocktails, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes and his band played zydeco from a tiny stage, vendors sold snacks, lemonade and jewelry, and public health advocates signed people up for programs.
Across the river, Marcia Madere and her husband Gary formed the weekly Gretna Farmers Market just two months after Katrina to answer a need for fresh produce after the flood closed other markets and destroyed grocery stores. From the start, Madere says, the market was more than just a retail venue.
"It provides a place for the whole community to come together," she says. "People come early for their coffee. There's music to keep it lively. We even have quite a few elderly people roll over from St. Joseph's (church) in their scooters."
Basic access to quality food is still a widespread problem in New Orleans, where many grocery stores remain closed. Helping address that need is the organizing principle behind the new Broadmoor Farmers Market scheduled to debut this Thursday, Sept. 20, outside the First Presbyterian Church. Market director Rusty Berridge is confident the event will become a magnet for neighbors to congregate and for people from other neighborhoods to see the progress Broadmoor has made since the levee failure.
"No one dislikes the idea of a farmers market. It's one of those things that makes everyone smile," says Berridge.
Those smiles get to the essence of the public marketplace appeal, says Richard McCarthy, executive director of Market Umbrella (www.marketumbrella.org), the nonprofit that runs the two weekly Crescent City Farmers Markets and other related programs.
"You have to consider the amount of stress people are under right now," McCarthy says. "They're going to the market for a break from our house-gutting lives and to see a glimpse of the gentleness that can exist in our city.
"This is about more than shopping. It's more than markets. It's a public declaration of commitment and togetherness. It's saying, 'We're here.' There's a local solidarity that develops from that and people get pretty emotional about it, too. People are engaging and connecting with each other and becoming aware of why they live here in a way that other cities would kill for. I think markets are places that help express that."
The Freret Market, the most ambitious of the new markets, opened for the first time on Sept. 8 and welcomed a huge crowd from around the city. The event was held in a normally empty parking lot that was filled all afternoon with vendor tables selling everything from fresh shrimp to old clothes, a booming music stage, food booths and a swarm of friendly faces exchanging greetings and currency. One vendor was Cree McCree, the godmother of New Orleans flea markets, who has organized her own markets and participated in others for decades. She's especially excited about the Freret Market's wide range of vendors, which she says attracts a diverse crowd and brings them together in one public space.
That was one of the hopes for the market from the start, says Dean Gancarz, president of Neighbors United, a neighborhood organization for the Uptown area that includes the Freret Street commercial corridor.
"This is a real well-rounded neighborhood," Gancarz says. "People from different backgrounds and races can get together here (at the market) as vendors and shoppers. The overhead is low, so everyone can participate. The more interaction you have with other people, the more you know people and the more trust you build."
A number of local organizations support the Freret Market, though its driving force and volunteer director is Peter Gardner, a 28-year-old real estate developer who owns property in the area and is eager to see Freret Street resume its past role as a hub of local businesses.
"We hope by putting this on, it will be an engine for revitalizing the street," he says. "Look at Magazine Street. People want to live around there because they like being able to walk to businesses and restaurants. That could happen here, and it has to start with people reconnecting with each other."
Neighborhood-based markets have a long history in New Orleans, where at the start of the 20th century there were more than 30 city-owned markets in operation. The only one of those remaining today is the French Market, which is in the midst of a comprehensive renovation and is accepting applications for new fresh-food vendors. Another vestige of the city's old market system is the St. Roch market on St. Claude Avenue, which is closed but has been targeted by the city for restoration using Katrina recovery funds. The Freret Market is also in line for city recovery money to build a permanent market structure on the parking lot site, and Gardner says the market potentially could expand to daily operations.
While public support may be on the way, the post-Katrina market surge is the result of decidedly citizen-led efforts, often tied to the recovery plans neighborhood groups penned for themselves in lieu of official direction from government officials.
"We've all become so much better at planning and organizing at the neighborhood level because of all the work people have put into recovery issues, so there are more groups now with the capacity to put on events like these," says Dana Eness, executive director of Stay Local, a program from the New Orleans nonprofit Urban Conservancy that advocates for locally owned businesses.
People are often amazed to learn just how many small businesses have returned to flood-damaged areas, she says, and markets can be great tools to showcase the progress and possibilities in neighborhoods as they rebuild.
"They're pulling it all together and making it really visible," Eness says.