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Dallas Farmer's Market: Cut it Off at the Roots

Jen Sorensen

Here's an idea. Nuke the Dallas Farmers Market. Seriously. Blow it up. Scrape it. Give the poor thing a decent burial, and then start from scratch.

Look at it. Everything about it says, "Dead on Arrival." Let's get real.

The homeless issue at the market is by no means the central problem or the root cause of anything, but it's symptomatic of everything else that's wrong. If that part of downtown were strong, the homeless issue would be a mild head cold. As it is, it's double pneumonia.

Last week I get a call from a guy who works in the Dallas Farmers Market tipping me that the cops are rousting homeless people when they try to walk through the market on their way from one mission to the next.

He says the homeless are trying to take a shortcut through the market from The Bridge, the city's big homeless center on Corsicana Street, to a shelter on Hickory Street southeast of the market. But the cops and private market security are making them detour and walk around the market along an unpaved shoulder on a freeway ramp.

Yup. I go down there and watch. That's exactly what they're doing. I watch while the cops try to get Jeffrey Edmondson, a 52-year-old American citizen with a backpack, to understand that he's not allowed to walk through the market, where the other American citizens are allowed to walk.

By the time I catch up with him, Edmondson is trudging along a narrow path next to the East R.L. Thornton access ramp. He has wary, untrusting, rescue-dog eyes, but he talks. He tells me they told him he couldn't go through the market. They didn't tell him it was because he was homeless, but he says he assumes that's why.

"I don't think it's fair," he says, then turns and trudges on along his way.

That sucks.

But, wait. Ten minutes later I'm inside one of the big warehouses that the cops are parked in front of at the corner of St. Louis and South Hall streets, talking to Jim Ingendorf, proprietor of Pro Deuce Services, a refrigerated storage and produce supply company.

The Ingendorfs have been in business in the market area for a long time. They own land, do business, pay taxes. "I'm not against the homeless," he says, but the criminal, addicted and psychotic populations mingled among them have tanked the value of his property since The Bridge opened in 2008.

"I carry a pistol, and I'm up here in the building," Ingendorf says. "I'm not sure of any of them."

He knows why the cops are parked out front of his building. "It's probably to keep me quiet," he says. He's done a lot of complaining. So would I, in his shoes.

It's all Band-Aids and rouge on a pig. The cops are in a hopeless position. So is Ingendorf. So are the homeless. Everybody is trying to survive in a situation that's basically not survivable. What has to change is the whole situation.

Here is this huge parcel, a good 25 acres of land right next to the city's business center, and in terms of the use it's being put to, it's a total dismal failure. The so-called Farmers Market runs hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hole every year; every attempt the city makes to jazz it up seems to wind up making it worse; and there is absolutely no vision or plan to make it any better.

So nuke it. Recognize reality. Scrape it. But then don't let City Hall piecemeal those acres out into a bunch of half-assed slum-of-the-future condos that some city councilperson is pushing for his or her church to build.

Turn it over to somebody who will build something iconic there, something that will change the ground forever. The only way to make things better is the long shot.

I feel sorry for the homeless. I hate seeing human beings told they can't walk among the rest of us. But there is also a harsh reality here. They walk into places they perceive as penetrable. Put something very big and busy there, and you won't have to tell them to walk around. They'll do it on their own.

I spent some time last week talking to Tom "Spiceman" Spicer, the specialty broker whose shop at 1410 Fitzhugh Ave. is Mecca to high-end chefs and epicures seeking the very best in locally grown produce. Spicer has an intimate, complex understanding of the wiring between farmers and end-point consumers in the Dallas food marketplace.

He says nuke it, too. Spicer says the universe of food is changing too fast and the machinery of City Hall is too slow. Everything the city tries to do will always fall short.

"It's too little, too late," he says. "I wish it wasn't so. We missed the boat."

 

The irony is that the forces at play in the universe of food would seem augur well for a farmers market. Other cities do well with them. Farmers markets are burgeoning everywhere from Santa Fe to Detroit. Just not ours.

Spicer says farmers markets are doing well here, just not the one downtown owned by the city. He's right. They're popping up all over the 'burbs and out in city neighborhoods.

One of my favorites is the White Rock Local Market held on the second and fourth Saturdays of every month at Buckner Boulevard and Northcliff Drive near White Rock Lake. It burgeons and burgeons!

But for a long time the city was doing every thing it could to stymie this and other satellite markets. In the city council debates, you could hear all the usual arguments working up to the surface like bad-smelling bubbles. One theory was that the neighborhood markets were going to steal market-share from the downtown market.

What market share? What's the market share in slow death? Slower death?

Some of the arguments echoed the city's ancient racial agony — that the neighborhood market thing was all about a bunch of elitists who didn't want to venture into downtown.

C'mon. What's an elitist? Somebody who doesn't want to get cornered by a crackhead while walking to his car? Call me Lord Fauntleroy.

For a while the paradigm looked like it was going to be stubbornly white and black, with locally grown organic produce as a white thing. But that paradigm was pretty effectively blown apart by Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a historically African-American school in far southern Dallas.

Sorrell is leading Paul Quinn toward becoming a center of leadership and innovation in local organic production, destroying the myth that healthy food is only for white folks. His work at Paul Quinn, like the growing success of the White Rock Market, is evidence that the farmers market phenomenon is migrating out to where it wants to be. And that's not in a big lumbering facility run by the city designed to serve an industrial model that died about 25 years ago.

Another guy I have talked to a little about this in recent weeks is Robin McCaffrey, a principal in the Mesa Design Group, hired by a consortium of property owners around the market to help develop strategy for the area's future.

When I ran my idea of a low-yield nuclear device by him, he seemed unenthusiastic, but he did say the idea of an iconic redevelopment from the ground up has actually been around for some time.

He sent me a brochure for a design that Mesa did in the early '90s for Northrup Properties in collaboration with the famed Jim Rouse of Baltimore, guru of "festival marketplace" redevelopments like Faneuil Hall in Boston and the South Street Seaport in New York City.

Oh, my God. What could have been. I notice the brochure says the anticipated completion for a proposed 80-acre project around the market was 1996 — six years before Laura Miller was elected mayor. Wow, a lot of water has not gone over the damn since then, eh?

McCaffrey didn't buy my idea of totally annihilating the market downtown. He said it would be better to "preserve a market element" in a redevelopment of the district rather than give up entirely on the area's historical identity.

So, OK. Using a nuclear device probably wouldn't be legal, anyway. I never went to urban redevelopment school, so how would I know?

But you get my drift, right? Why keep flogging this poor beleaguered horse thinking the whip will turn it into a derby winner? The kinder thing would be to walk the old dear down to the glue factory and let them put a bullet in her head.

There is never again going to be a big successful central farmers market owned by the city in downtown Dallas. It's over. Gone. We might as well try to build stables and a buggy whip factory down there.

We need to do something new with the land that will transform that part of downtown. Get the land values back up and allow the warehouse owners to sell and escape. Keep some kind of cute little neighborhood market in there if necessary. Nuke the rest.

You were asking? Put what there? What's my big idea for a transformational project? Well, I don't really work in the transformational department. I'm more in the nuke department.

But let's put our thinking caps on. A new football stadium, perhaps? Nah. Horse already gone from barn.

I know I talked bad about the low-rise condos creeping into the area already from the periphery. But you know what could really make Dallas a totally different place? A high-rise affordable village where tons of young wage-earners could live, shop, dine and do those other things they do. I forget what that is, exactly, but I know what we don't have downtown. Bodies.

 

That's just one idea. I'm trying to stave off the other one that always comes up when you talk about land-use in Dallas: How about we do a Soviet-scale high-end shopping mall full of rich white people surrounded by massive walls and gun turrets?

How about not? Let's do something different for a change — something that doesn't have both feet firmly planted in the concrete of yesteryear.


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