now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year
No, it doesn’t exist, but it should.
If I possessed unlimited means, I would buy the old Main Post Office Building—the massive old structure straddling the Congress Avenue parkway—and turn it into a year-round indoor market, selling fresh food, antiques, and locally produced craft goods of all kinds. Not only are the size and location of the building friendly to this use, but the enterprise would give Chicago’s flourishing outdoor and seasonal market system a great boost.
The green markets that currently exist in the city are great, but let’s face it: they’re of limited utility because they don’t occur everyday. Moreover, the set-up and break-down regimens of day-long markets are punishing for vendors, who must transport their produce and the materials for their work to and from the sites each day. The vast inefficiencies of day-long markets add substantially to the price of their wares.
Despite their many drawbacks, the city’s green markets are heavily patronized, and the day-market concept is being turned to other uses. To the several summertime flea markets held around the city (think Randolph Street Market) have been added new indoor markets held on selected weekends throughout the year (e.g., Dose, which has drawn crowds to River East). Chicagoans are beginning to explore the potentialities of local markets, which encourage new commercial synergies and allow for new patterns of “industry” and trade.
Permanent indoor markets used to be common out east, sometimes housed in architecturally distinctive buildings like the one above. Indoor markets have made a comeback in other cities and proven to be a magnet for tourists and development in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where they never really died. Two of my favorite east-coast train stations—Washington DC’s Union Station and Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station—incorporated some market elements when revitalized in recent decades.
Real-estate prices are low, and Chicago leaders are looking for ways to boost tourism and stimulate production and trade. Now’s the time to jettison the city’s one timid attempt at an indoor market in favor of an ambitious redevelopment project capable of uniting the city’s alternative-market forces and concentrating them in one permanent place.
The old main post office, vacant since 1997, would lend itself well to this use because of its location, features, and immense size. The post office was designed to accommodate a high volume of pedestrian traffic as well as a vast volume of goods delivered by a large vehicular fleet. Reuse as a market would capitalize on the building’s strategic location near downtown and commuter hubs. This is a blighted area of the Loop, but one proximate to the old market districts whose vestiges still linger on the West Side and Roosevelt Road. Placing a large market near our railroad terminals makes sense, because historically they’ve been a locus of exchange and trade.
Unfortunately, the old post office was sold at auction in 2007 to British developer William Davies, who paid a measly $17 million for it. He has overblown plans to create there yet another retail shopping mall surrounded by high-rises. The economics of his plan don’t make sense, and it remains to be seen whether his zeal is equal to turning a great white elephant into something living. In the meantime, I hope Chicago’s powers that be will catch the contagion gripping other cities and develop a incurable case of green-market fever.
TOP: Chicago’s Old Main Post Office, from this source;
MIDDLE:Hand-tinted photograph of the Northern Liberty Market
in the District of Columbia circa 1910 (since demolished) from this source;
BOTTOM TWO: Seattle’s Pike Place Market by Susan Barsy.
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“Bids Start at $300,000 for Chicago’s Old Post Office,” New York Times, 5 August 2009.