COMMENTARY: A reconfiguring of the 17th Street Farmers’ Market is all about flexibility

While many spaces and places have indisputable history and deep antiquity, the 17th Street Farmers’ Market is the oldest continuously occupied real estate in town.

It sits just a few yards east of Shockoe Creek, which now flows beneath what would be North 15th Street in culverts toward the river. For centuries, Native Americans gathered at this point where Tidewater, with its navigable waters, and the Piedmont region abut. In colonial times, since ships could go no farther west, this was the point for transferring goods between the coastal plain and western hinterlands. And tragically, it was in this valley that thousands of African-Americans, from downriver estates, were sold and sent south for picking cotton.

Before refrigeration, the market was our region’s premier shopping destination — the Short Pump of its time. All manner of products were available. Immigrant merchants and their offspring often lived above stores. As the town grew, the more prosperous folk moved to surrounding hillsides, and later to the suburbs.

Post-Civil War, and until World War II, Shockoe Bottom was densely populated. Residents lived cheek-to-jowl, African-Americans who’d migrated from Southside Virginia, where jobs were scarce, and Jews from Eastern Europe. And from at least the 1790s, until about a year ago, a market structure of some fashion always occupied the narrow block that runs along 17th Street, between East Main and East Franklin.

Early on, the facility was a handsome, two-story classical structure with open, loggialike, selling spaces. On its second floor, rascals or worse, could be locked up awaiting a hearing with a judge who presided in the same building. From the 1950s through the ’70s, a much-reduced market facility consisted of a linear metal shed, but easily accessible for farm trucks.

Then, in the 1980s, a more intentional complex was built. Its tightly configured, pavilionlike market spaces were defined by pressure-treated, 6-by-6 uprights protected by a green-hued, standing-seam metal roof. The architect was Glave Newman & Anderson. The grace notes were two, large, terra-cotta bull’s heads that sat atop high pedestals. These sculptures had been rescued when their former perch, a downtown market building at Sixth and Marshall, was demolished.

Therefore, for a couple of centuries, 17th Street has seen an active, albeit at times diminished, farmers market.

Until now, that is.

A month ago, like a long-expected Christmas present, the months-long renovation of the city-owned market, designed by the Baskervill architecture firm, was completed.

Gone are any market-purposed structures. And sadly, also gone are the often picturesque legacy produce and flower merchants. For the first time in a century and a half, there was no promise that a Virginia cedar or any other evergreens — running pine or mistletoe— could be purchased here.

But a new holiday tradition has taken the merchants’ place. Those who trickle down to the market during the waning holidays will find a temporary, public ice-skating rink. In recent years, it occupied the downtown parking lot on East Broad Street behind the Dominion Energy Center.

Folks visiting Shockoe Bottom also will find an open, newly configured, hard-paved space planted with a handful of mature trees. The redesign is all about flexibility in order to accommodate special events — festivals, concerts, and rallies. This should extend the market’s traditional role as a venue of such jollification as the Tomato Festival, the Brunswick Stew Festival and the Italian Festival.

The new, rectangular space, uncomfortably re-christened Market Square, is bigger than a tennis court, but smaller than a soccer field. It is paved in concrete. The expanse is outlined along 17th Street by handsome, newly laid small granite blocks. They are set in the same fishtail pattern as was the previous street pavement. The nearby city sidewalks have been re-laid in a herringbone pattern. The granite curbing is still there, but aligned with the new pavers. This is more comfortable for the wheelchair-bound and safer for pedestrians.

Come spring, the shade trees should better establish the space as an oasislike destination, much like the trees in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts motor court provide generous shade at that hard space.

And nearby, the terra-cotta bull heads have been remounted to delight new generations.

What makes this minimalistic, if not brutalistic, space welcoming is the embrace of surrounding urban walls. On both long sides of the new park, along 17th Street, and along East Main, are mostly two- and three-story buildings built in the late 19th, and early 20th centuries. These provide a sense of spatial enclosure, not unlike many European squares and piazzas.

And when wrapping one’s head around this reconfigured public space, it is important to consider that this is not our parents’ farmers market. During the past decade or so, at least six major developments in the neighborhood have created an imperative not just for a public open space, but connective tissue. First, construction of the flood wall made restoration of Shockoe Bottom’s historic buildings economically viable. Next, restoration of the Main Street Station head house and the return of Amtrak service renewed a world-class architectural centerpiece. Then, the Capital Trail, linking Capitol Square with Jamestown, was threaded through the city grid here. And finally, the gloriously sprawling train shed was polished to a spectacular sheen. Significant new apartment construction and the arrival of the Pulse bus service have solidified a reborn residential neighborhood.

And now, a major open space has been created.

So, what are we to make of the new 17th Street Farmers’ Market, minus, well, any semblance of a market?

To be fair, this is a work in progress. Masons were hustling to install the paving stones and bricks just hours before the ice rink opening. Public sidewalks along Franklin Street still are incomplete. And just how the new space will be operated and curated is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, the few market vendors, squatterlike, sell their wares nearby in scattered, decidedly undercurated, spots.

Stay tuned.


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