Eastern Market heats up

As it enters its busy season, market leader Dan Carmody discusses its past, present and future

Jun 15, 2011 at 12:00 am

It's summertime, which means the Mack Avenue exit off I-75 backs up on Saturday mornings when thousands stream into Detroit's Eastern Market in search of farm-fresh food. Though it has been a Detroit tradition for decades, it has only picked up steam since Dan Carmody came to Detroit three years ago to assume leadership of the historic Detroit Eastern Market. He has lofty ambitions for our city's gem. His career includes time as a city planner, bar and restaurant owner, and 20 years working for nonprofits specializing in downtown revitalization.

Metro Times: What brought you to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Ind.?

Dan Carmody: I first saw the Eastern Market in the spring of 2007 on a Sunday. There was nobody around, and it looked like some kind of Mel Gibson apocalypse scene, a preface to what I saw on a Saturday when it's teeming with people. It's like no other neighborhood in North America. When the Eastern Market went to find a president, somehow my name got to the headhunter.

MT: What specifically did you like about the market?

DC: It's a professional challenge to figure out how to make every day more like Saturday. There's no silver bullet. I didn't really fully comprehend the depth of what goes on here. It looks at times like a crumbling mass of urbanity. What Detroit has in the Eastern Market is in many ways the last of its kind and perhaps the first of a new generation. It's the last of a kind of local food district that every city had that was significantly built before 1950 — a large market where food was brought into the region. It was typically surrounded by a number of food-related businesses. All of those places in other cities were dismantled by a combination of things: the increasing scale of food distribution and processing activities, and the underlying value of the real estate of those food districts, which became cooler for bars and boutiques and lofts. So Detroit's is the last one that still stands, and the fact is we have the Saturday retail market, which is spectacular, but we also have, Monday through Friday, from mid-June through mid-November, a very active wholesale market, where 40 or 50 regional growers come here from midnight to 5 a.m. to supply principally suburban grocery store chains. Detroit has probably the best batch of any metropolitan area in the country in terms of the depth of high-quality, independently owned suburban grocers. The reason our wholesale market still exists is because of Michigan's agricultural diversity, because we have a sort of a low-cost place to work out of, because there are a number of substantial buyers that don't exist in other markets.

MT: How are you changing the market?

DC: We have four missions. One is to run the market on a daily basis. The second is to imagine, fund and implement a series of capital improvements to the market. The third is to serve as an official economic development organizer to strengthen the market for the Eastern Market district. Fourth is to work with a number of collaborators and partners to strengthen the regional food systems in southeast Michigan. Our general mission to take this place back in time, and to bring some of those jobs back that we've sacrificed to these, quite frankly, pretty efficient systems that have taken a lot of the employment out to where, structurally, there aren't enough jobs, not only in Detroit, but in most major metropolitan areas in the United States, especially food industry jobs that range from the highest skilled, highest talent jobs to entry-level jobs, minimal scale jobs. We need all of those kind of jobs. So in the Eastern Market, we break it down. What is this thing called a local food system? You've got to grow it, process it, distribute it and retail it. In our case you've got to focus on two forms of education. One is educating consumers how to deal with foods that are not quite as processed, that there are means of cooking other than a microwave and that aren't completely inconvenient, that don't require a Ph.D.; and educating people about nutritional values, educating more people about how to grow stuff.

MT: What role does urban agriculture play in your plan?

DC: Actually, Detroit is blessed in that regard because of the Greening of Detroit, Earthworks, Capuchin and Michigan State University's Gardening Resource Center, which is one of the best urban farming training programs in the country. Down the street from where we sit today, at the corner of Wilkins and Orleans, Greening of Detroit will build its third model garden, an urban market garden to showcase specialty crop production and show how you do a 2-1/2-acre site that will hopefully support up to three jobs from that scale of production.

MT: Is there enough farmable land in the city to have an impact on the overall local market?

DC: The community gardening movement in Detroit is profound. In 2004, there were 80 community gardens. Anticipated this spring are 1,600 community gardens, with about 80 percent retained annually. While much of the food is grown for the farmers' consumption, some of it is now being sold in the market and, in some cases, to restaurants like Supino's and the Russell Street Deli. Food is the third most important objective of community gardening. The first is getting neighbors to work together, positively, constructively, without waiting for anyone to do something for them. They're actually taking steps to make their neighborhoods better. Secondly, it's the best engagement and education tool in changing diets; better than food stamps, better than food vouchers, better than increased supply. When a kid pulls a carrot out of the ground and begins to understand that the carrot is supposed to be normal and the Twinkie is supposed to be weird, rather than the other way around, that's profound. Community gardening is about empowerment, education and engagement, and then it's about food, in that order. A problem of the local and sustainable ag people is that many of them are Luddites, refusing to accept the new technology as part of the solution. To me there's no such thing as old technology or new technology as much as appropriate technology.

MT: You've spoken about local food systems for the area. What's going on at the Eastern Market?

DC: It's a gem. It's a platform to build this local food system up from. So let's look at what we've got here. We've got a retail market year-round that's Saturdays-only, attracting 10,000 in January and from 30,000 to 40,000 per day May through September. We have a wholesale market with 40 to 50 vendors mid-June to November. We also have this clustering of 80 small-scale processors and distributors around the market. The clustering and comingling is the part that others cities don't have. To boil it all down, that's the fundamental asset that we have. We also have this funky, offbeat, authentic neighborhood that has a lot of smallerish buildings that are part of the ecology as well. New companies can't afford to buy new buildings, so what might look like crap to suburbanites, who want to see the place cleaned up a little, looks like gold to me, because we can buy that building affordably, go in there and start to work and, hopefully, be successful enough to outgrow it. We've got a greening project going on down here. We also have a very likely chance of a nonprofit converting much of a vacant 104,000-square-foot industrial building across the street from that market garden into a 3-million-pound-a-year tilapia production facility. When you get right down to it, the most important thing we're about right now is a place that can provide significant numbers of jobs on the processing side. We're trying to restore the market share that we enjoyed in 1950. The Shed 5 renovation includes a shared-use community kitchen, which we want to use to help incubate a new generation of niche processors. The fee for kitchen use is $20 per hour. For $75, you can preview your product in front of 30,000-40,000 Saturday market customers. (See 1.usa.gov/ccNWE6 for details of Michigan's newly enacted Cottage law.) We want to domicile MSU's product development center on-site, working with clients from our kitchen. We want to work with some of the job-training folks. We want to provide an environment for peer-to-peer culture where people can hang out at places like Supino's and Russell Street Deli to exchange ideas that will result in the emergence of more specialty food products. The Greening of Detroit will have a wash-and-sort facility. We hope some of these programs will create a weekday retail experience with permanent vendors. The one that exists now is the Gratiot Central Market, primarily a great butcher shop. At this end of the market we want to build a destination restaurant that will draw people during the week, one that will use local sourcing. We need to have a much more elaborate education center. Presently, the Gratiot Central Market is a two-block walk from Shed 2, a walk through the parking lot and through a bridge over the expressway that is clogged with vendors. We want to move them to a promenade in the parking lot, making access to the other side of he expressway a pleasant experience and more accessible.

MT: If you didn't believe in Detroit, you wouldn't be here today. How do you envision the city's future?

DC: Detroit has the opportunity — because it's more broken than other American cities — to write some new rules and to try some things outside of the box that other places won't: to experiment, to see what works and what doesn't, to be open to experimentation. Many of the problems that Detroit has are the same problems that are affecting the rest of the country. We've just got a worse strain of it. To a certain extent, depending on how the overall economy goes, the rest of the country could look a lot like Detroit. Food is typically one of the central organizing elements. Food is where justice meets economic vitality and meets environmental sustainability. If you don't have those three things, you can't have a society that endures.

MT: What so you mean by justice?

DC: You can't have a food system where 20 percent of the people at the lower end of the economic totem pole eat only one-seventh of the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables that the people at the top eat. Society can't afford the health care costs of treating diabetes and hypertension and coronary disease after they're contracted because of their poor diet. We as a society have to figure out a way that people of all incomes can afford and can access healthy eating. The Eastern Market is much loved in this region because it's where food and place come together. So the conviviality is every bit as important in that engagement as the good food is here is to changing that mix as it affects our diet, as it affects the health of the region, and as it affects the country in terms of what people eat.