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A Change in the Market?

Haymarket is as much a part of Boston's identity as Faneuil Hall, the Duck Boats, and the Marathon, but now the inexpensive open-air market faces a challenge. Upscale development of the Greenway is on the way, and Haymarket vendors worry how they'll fit in.

Vendor Helen Mary Piazza at Haymarket.
Vendor Helen Mary Piazza at Haymarket. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

HAYMARKET REGULARS ARE DOING THEIR WEEKLY WEAVE PAST stands packed with broccoli and bananas, mangoes and melons, grapes and garlic, potatoes, persimmons, and pears. As one woman fills a large cardboard box with about 10 pounds of produce, a vendor adds the total in his head. "Six dollars," he says. "Have only five," responds the customer in halting English, holding out that many crumpled dollar bills. "Close enough," says the vendor, turning to the next customer.

This is the way it has always been at Haymarket, a maze of about 50 outdoor stands selling inexpensive produce every Friday and Saturday on and around Blackstone Street in downtown Boston. Many of the stands have been run by the same families for two, three, or more generations. Paul Piazza, 78, began helping his father sell peppers 70 years ago. They call him "Paulie Peppers." How many times has he set up this stand? "Too many," he answers.

But Piazza's routine and the tradition of Haymarket itself now face a challenge unlike any the market has withstood since opening near Faneuil Hall around 1830. With the Big Dig almost done, city planners talk of folding Haymarket into a market district that would stretch from Blackstone Street across the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the North End, with some condos thrown in. As a new, upscale swath of downtown takes shape, vendors are left wondering whether they'll fit in.

THIS ISN'T THE FIRST TIME HAYMARKET HAS FACED CHANGE. Vendors' horse-and-wagon teams yielded to pushcarts, most of which were replaced by larger, tarp-covered wooden stands. Vendors weren't sure they'd weather the opening in 1934 of the East Boston tunnel, the construction of the Central Artery on top of them in the 1950s, or the building of nearby Government Center a decade later. But they did, just as Haymarket lasted through a dozen years of the Big Dig, which tore down the Artery and revealed new ground around them. Recognizing that tradition alone was not enough, vendors in the 1950s secured state legislation that assured their continued operation at Haymarket; in the 1980s, the city adopted a similar statute. Under an agreement between the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Haymarket Pushcart Association, Big Dig construction near the market shut down every Thursday at 2 p.m. and stayed closed on Fridays so vendors could set up and operate.

But since Greenway work began in earnest in May, Haymarket sellers - long used to on-again, off-again city code enforcement - have faced more rigorous scrutiny. Customers' double-parked vehicles now regularly get ticketed. Vendors' stands, the floors of which are often just wooden pallets, must be swept out several times a day.

"Haymarket is part of the uniqueness of Boston," says Mayor Thomas Menino. "My parents took me there when I was a kid. I wouldn't want the vendors to not be part of the Boston landscape. We want people to be able to buy affordable fruit and vegetables. But [the vendors] have to meet us halfway. They can't continue to live outside the rules. We have to have constructive dialogue with them."

Ottavio Gallotto, president of the 200-member Haymarket Pushcart Association and operator of his own produce stands, meets at least monthly with city officials to discuss such issues as what time of day vendors can unload produce. And he deals almost daily with his own sometimes-cranky constituency. "As the city evolves, we want to evolve with it," Gallotto says. "You can run this place like a pushcart or you can run it like a business." He's succeeded, for example, in getting vendors to better control both their garbage and their occasionally crusty language. Today's market still focuses on low prices - made possible because vendors buy from the Chelsea produce exchange on Thursdays and Fridays, when shelves have to be cleared for the next week's shipments (which is also why Haymarket produce sometimes goes bad quickly) - but Haymarket is a more mellow place. Some vendors still cuss out customers who move rows of oranges in search of the just-right dozen, but most have adopted more consumer-friendly ways. The vendors are willing to make accommodations, they say, but only to a point. "Change is one thing, but our history is that we've always gotten the short end of the stick," says pushcart association vice president Lou Bottari. "We've been here for decades."

City planners appreciate the market's importance to the city. "Haymarket has a lot of years and history behind it," says Ken Greenberg, a former consultant to the Boston Redevelopment Authority who recently became interim city planner. He helped design possible uses for the Greenway and sees the land opened up by the Big Dig as "a remarkable, unique opportunity to repopulate an area right in the heart of a great city." Greenway space near Haymarket, he says, "has the potential to be a whole market district area," like Seattle's Pike Place Market, which seven days a week offers a range of goods, from vegetables to pastries, flowers to souvenirs. But such urban markets tend to be more top shelf than bargain basement.

Menino supports the idea of a district of "market-related" activities, such as farmers' markets, flower and crafts shops, specialty food stands, and more. "The key to this whole thing is how the 27 acres of the Greenway come out," he says. "How is it coordinated? How does it serve many constituencies? It cannot be Manhattanized - there have to be places for open-air markets." Greenberg echoes this view: "The challenge is to make sure [Haymarket vendors] are not squeezed out, because they shouldn't be. It will require a skillful solution." A solution, in other words, in which urban shoppers willing to shell out a dollar for one organic apple can coexist with a Haymarket crowd expecting at least four apples for the same buck.

The Greenway development issue about which Haymarket vendors are most immediately concerned is a building planned for Parcel 9, which abuts Haymarket on Blackstone Street. City and state officials envision a structure with retail space on the first floor and several floors of housing above. Some of the first floor could be used by Haymarket" vendors for retail sales or to compact garbage and stash supplies. While the vendors support this concept, they worry the new first floor won't have space for all the outdoor sellers, who now spread across Blackstone Street and onto Hanover and North streets. They also fret about losing their "third aisle," a space on Blackstone Street behind their two rows of stands that they use for storage. This crucial third aisle kisses the new sidewalk for Parcel 9, and rotting cantaloupes and condos are not a happy mix.

The Turnpike Authority controls the Greenway land. "Development of Parcel 9 can be done in way to support and even improve [the vendors'] operations," asserts Stephen Hines, the authority's chief development officer. But the city will largely determine what's built on the Greenway parcels, and that has vendors frustrated. They complain they're not quite sure what the city wants - or who's really calling the shots.

What's needed, says Sy Mintz, a Boston architect and planner and a consultant to the pushcart association, is for the mayor to establish a public-private corporation to oversee the development and management of the would-be market area, something along the lines of the Downtown Waterfront Corporation. Set up in the early 1960s by the Boston Chamber of Commerce at the urging of then Boston Mayor John F. Collins, the corporation planned the renewal of Faneuil Hall and other waterfront development. "It's nice to say everyone wants this thing called a market district area, but no one in the city is in charge of it," says Mintz, who was the corporation's director of planning and design. "It needs someone to make it happen." In the meantime, Mintz is developing designs for the pushcart association for a more permanent Haymarket setup on Blackstone Street, featuring fixed canopies rather than a patchwork of temporary tarps.

Haymarket vendors are also keeping an eye on the plans of the nonprofit Boston Public Market Association, which recently got the OK to hold an open-air food market on the Northern Avenue pedestrian bridge this summer. The association dreams of its own year-round market in the city.

While the Haymarket vendors plan to stay where they are, some business owners in the area wouldn't mind if they just went away. "We lose [business] all day Saturday, and the mess they leave is incredible," says John Lounge, manager of The Point, a bar and restaurant on Blackstone Street. Craig Dunn, general manager of the Naked Fish restaurant on North Street, also has problems with trash and congestion. "The vendors are great people, very friendly and sometimes our customers as well," he says. "But from a business standpoint, it's kind of a tough location."

At the Millennium Bostonian Hotel, which sits on Blackstone and North streets, general manager Patrice Worcester hopes for Haymarket stands that are more permanent, attractive, and sanitary, though she acknowledges that such transformation goes against the vendors' low-budget ways. "We're a luxury hotel, and there is a definite divergence of opinion" among hotel guests, Worcester says. "Haymarket is quaint in some people's eyes, but if you ever walked in front of our hotel on a Saturday, there's rotten vegetables on the street, even though the city does do a good job cleaning up. . . . You have to be good neighbors and coexist, but it's difficult."

JOE MATARA, WHO STARTED SELLING PRODUCE ON NORTH STREET in 1943 ("I was 13 and filling in for guys who had gone off to the war"), wants a good relationship, too. Matara founded the pushcart association in 1974 and headed it before Gallotto took over about 18 months ago. He says he has "cautious optimism" about Haymarket's future, but his decades of dealing with Boston officials make him wonder whether the city really wants Haymarket and its litter and sometimes loudmouthed vendors. "Because of [past] attitudes from the city, I don't trust them," says Matara, who says he thinks some officials consider the market "a blemish on the city."

Matara has seen the faces of both vendors and customers shift with the city's ethnic waves. "This market is a microcosm of Boston's immigrant experience. We were the first ones to welcome immigrants," he says. "They are who sustain the market." Indeed, Haymarket sees a mix of races that is often painfully rare in the rest of city. In just a half-hour on one recent Saturday, the market was filled with shoppers from Nepal, China, Ethiopia, Syria, and Sudan. Others came from Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, and New Hampshire. The occasional tourist wandered over from Quincy Market, too.

"I enjoy coming here, and I save money at the same time," says Daniel Batista of Everett, a Brazilian immigrant who just spent about $40 for items that he says would have cost "at least twice that much" in a supermarket.

While Gallotto estimates that about two-thirds of the vendors are still Italian, the faces behind the counters are also changing. Asians and North Africans, among others, now operate stands, often selling to people from their homelands. "You stand here, you hear every language in the world," says Hakim Otiz, a vendor from Morocco.

Mui Tham first came to Haymarket as a shopper in 1991. "It was like what I knew in Cambodia," she says. Now she and family members run three stands. "When we shop for our produce, we buy things Asians want, like watercress and lemon grass."

"Our customers can't afford to go shopping in supermarkets," adds her daughter, Maly Tham. What is she telling her customers about the future of Haymarket? "I say we can't tell them anything, because we don't know ourselves."

But those customers are the reason Haymarket will survive, says Sal Anastasi, whose family has run pushcarts and stands for more than a century. "I see us here because the people want us."

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