Seeds of Hope for Dallas Farmers Market

Look, you did not hear this here, OK? I don't want to have any of this attributed to me. Anyway, it's possible I overdid my Benadryl and maybe this is just one of those brain swerves like when I thought we were going to get bike paths. But I can't shake an eerie sense that something very good could be on the verge of happening to the Dallas downtown farmers market.

I know. I know. Crazy. But I have reasons.

We have talked about the farmers market before, you and I. I shared with you my theory that the market, not unlike Fair Park, was a thing that needed to be blown up by a bomb, so that innocent people would never again wander into it by accident and get depressed as hell.

That's how it is now. You have seen farmers markets in other cities, I know, in Fort Worth or Santa Fe, San Francisco or Coppell, and so you know how cool they can be. On the other hand, if you have been to our own farmers market downtown, especially on a weekday, then you also know the feeling of, "Help! I have fallen psychologically, and I can't get up."

Over the years the city has tried all sorts of fixes and none has ever put a dent in the massive depressive power of the Dallas Farmers Market. It is a place where nothing looks like it was ever alive. A colleague who moved here from another city remarked recently that the Dallas Farmers Market was the only one she had ever visited where the "farmers" sold Brussels sprouts in shrink wrap. Just be glad they don't sell dogs.

That's why I came up with my idea for the bombs and the salted earth. If it's destined to be a dead zone, let's just be honest about it.

But there was always that other distant possibility, the non-Jim Schutze solution, that instead of blowing it up and walling it off the city might find a way to make it ... to make it ... can I even spit the word out ... cool.

Yes. It happens. Elsewhere. There was a story in The New York Times recently saying that Grand Rapids, Michigan, will open a new $30 million, 130,000-square-foot "Downtown Market" next year designed to draw 500,000 visitors annually. The plans described in the Times piece sounded very cool. And I should add something here: I grew up in Michigan, and I know a thing or two about Grand Rapids. It's an extremely conservative Dutch Reform bastion, home of President Gerald Ford, that has always been historically one of the least cool cities in the nation, possibly in the world.

In fact, reading about their farmers market brought me to sort of a crisis point. I thought, "OK, if Grand Rapids is now going to be cooler than us, then we all just need to go shoot ourselves." That's what spurred me to try to catch up with our farmers market situation here.

We here at the Observer were the first ones to report a year ago that Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm was considering proposals to take the market private, which seemed like a great idea. I also told you here about Eastern Market in Detroit, which really is one of the nation's best and most successful farmers markets, drawing millions of annual visitors from five states and Canada. The whole trick, the secret, the solution in Detroit was privatization.

I knew that Suhm's vision for a privatized market here had hit a speed bump when not enough interested parties showed up wanting to take it on. And, I mean, you can see why. It's sort of like signing a contract to make Oakland Cemetery more fun. More what fun?

But during that first go-round, a very interesting group did come forward, centered on restaurateur/investor Phil Cobb, his wife, Janet, and their son Blair Black. The Cobbs have a history of coolness. They were early major backers of the McKinney Avenue Trolley and by extension the whole redevelopment of McKinney Avenue and Uptown. Back when both Deep Ellum and the Bishop Arts District were still mainly places to get rebuilt truck transmissions, the Cobbs were helping give Uptown the quirky cobblestone appeal that brought it back to life.

The son, Black, gave a speech to a downtown group a year ago in which he described a totally redeveloped farmers market. It would focus on bringing locally and regionally grown food into an entire nexus of stalls, restaurants and shops, with some kind of residential element centered on the market. The thing I found most encouraging about his presentation was the degree to which he got the whole local-food movement as a basic cultural theme and market force.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze