Continental Chicago

now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year

The Chicago Food and Craft Cooperative

Chicago's Old Main Post Office Building (Photograph by Brianbobcat via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Color-tinted photograph of the old North Central Market in the District of Columbia, now demolished

The old North Central Market in Washington, DC

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.

Pike Place Market, Seattle (Credit: Susan Barsy)

Seattle’s Pike Place Market

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.

Wares at Pike Place Market, Seattle (Credit: Susan Barsy)

Seattle’s Pike Place Market

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.

Like the idea?  Promote it by sharing this article, using the social media buttons below.

“Bids Start at $300,000 for Chicago’s Old Post Office,” New York Times, 5 August 2009.

13 comments on “The Chicago Food and Craft Cooperative

  1. Susan Barsy
    August 28, 2012

    Further inspiration from Toronto: the link to the St Lawrence Market

  2. Kitty Hannaford
    August 28, 2012

    Chicago had a couple of central market buildings too—I’ve seen them on maps, though can’t get my hands on the ones I’m thinking of. I’m guessing that after the Fire of 1871 they were not rebuilt.

    Encyclopedia of Chicago History gives a little detail:

    In 1839 the city council granted Joseph Blanchard the right to construct the city’s first public market and to rent out stalls to local butchers, grocers, and produce dealers. The council prohibited the sale of retail proportions of meat, eggs, poultry, and vegetables anywhere else in the city during market hours. Such arrangements were a convenient way of assuring dealers of perishables that they would be able to find customers for their goods. The public market also provided customers a central place to purchase food and socialize. The city council authorized the construction of two more markets in the 1840s—one on the aptly named Market Street, and another on State Street in the city’s first municipal structure, the Market Building.

    So, if Chicago did this, it would be back to the future!

    (I’ve been to the West Side market in Cleveland, and it is wonderful; it’s been an engine for revitalization of its neighborhood too!)

    • Susan Barsy
      August 28, 2012

      How interesting–I didn’t know any of this. Thanks for putting in the quotation with all its details. How interesting that a market building was the very first thing the municipality built! I guess I will have to go to Cleveland to see its market; or perhaps I can get Joanie to act as our Cleveland correspondent. . . .
      Thanks for writing in; I’m going to keep my eyes open in case I run across any images of the markets that the encyclopedia mentions.

  3. Sam Dune
    August 24, 2012

    A wonderful idea! I’ve seen the indoor markets in San Fransisco and Seattle; they are fun and colorful to walk around and offer a plethora of diversions. Turning Chicago’s main post office into one would probably prove to be very successful…….

    • Susan Barsy
      August 26, 2012

      It would be dreamy, wouldn’t it? If not in the P.O., then in some other big building no one wants or knows what to do with. . . . It would be great for the city, and for its hinterland. . . . this used to be one of the great crossroads for the purveying of goods, and it could be again.

  4. marygaytangardener
    August 20, 2012

    Susan, check out Cleveland’s West Side Market (open 4 days a week) for its historic building and Detroit’s East Side Market (Saturdays only) for an innovative business model. I bet there is plenty of consumer interest/demand in Chicago for a permanent daily indoor market. Even so, re-purposing a gigantic building can be a long haul; it took years for the Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco to become a reality.

    • Susan Barsy
      August 20, 2012

      Mary–Thanks for writing in—this is a great goal for a city—Chicago can learn a lot from instances where the goal has been achieved. Did not know about the markets in Detroit and Cleveland. Let’s go! Susan

  5. Margie Spoerl
    August 19, 2012

    Philadelphia has a great market.

    • Susan Barsy
      August 20, 2012

      I was just reading about it the other day–would love to see it! SB

  6. Lisa Radomsky
    August 19, 2012

    Great idea, Susan. Portland, ME had a very nice market like these, don’t know if it’s still in existence.

    • Susan Barsy
      August 19, 2012

      Lisa–Funny you should mention that–I was just looking at this old photograph of the outdoor market in Portland the other day. It’s from 2008–I think that was the last time we were all in Maine together.

      I guess it makes sense Portland would have an indoor market–an old harbor town, with all those warehouses. . . that seems to be where markets traditionally tended to be. Chicago, too, though an inland city, was an entrepot of goods, which arrived here from the east, north, and south by both boat and rail, to be redistributed to our “hinterlands.” To resurrect some of that function through a market would be so cool. Even if the old PO building couldn’t be used, there are other neglected buildings over in that part of the city that would do as well.

      Thanks for writing in!

  7. Susan Barsy
    August 18, 2012

    Let me see. In the meantime, feel free to circulate this post. SB

  8. schoolpsychscholar
    August 18, 2012

    What a great idea! Is there any kind of community movement or petition drive people could sign? Or a way to communicate this idea to the appropriate city leaders?

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