Monday, May 7, 2007

Back to Eastern Market

As I mentioned a week or so ago, Eastern Market burned last weekend. This weekend, the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill held their annual Eastern Market day. Dan and I went down, put Max in the stroller, and braved what we knew would be very difficult to see.

We could see the damage to the building before we'd even reached the flea market area in the lot behind the middle school. The roof was destroyed, with gaping holes chewed in the peak and the air vent intakes warped and bent. We both sort of groaned out loud when we saw it.

Eastern Market has become a cherished part of our short history in the area. We like that we're supporting regional farms and artists when we buy there, but we admit that more than being responsible consumers, we're food nerds, and Eastern Market is food nerd heaven. Whenever we have guests, we take them to Eastern Market. Part of it is the food, but the bigger part is that in a city where everything seems transient, overpriced, and posturing towards trendy, Eastern Market is old, established, and a community onto itself.

We saw what remained of the community this weekend, when the streets around Eastern Market were closed off to makes space for food vendors and artists and political and non-profit groups. Many of the 14 indoor vendors whose spaces were destroyed by the fire set up outside, and more than once, I saw butchers or grocers stop what they were doing to hug their regular customers and assure them that they were fine, they would be fine, they would be back when Eastern Market rebuilt and reopened, and until then, they would set up behind the market or across the street or wherever they could, to continue doing business and continue paying the employees who depend on them.

I am of the opinion that living in a small town is, for the most part, highly overrated. Big cities are crowded, impersonal, expensive, and full of little annoyances. But I still prefer them to a place where, even when you don't know what you're doing, everybody else does. In my hometown, I always felt very visible: my parents are fairly prominent in the community, and I spent most of my childhood, adolescence, and young-adulthood feeling self-conscious and on display. Here: not so much. Small town life never even appeals to me when I'm tired of sitting in traffic on a Friday afternoon.

The exception to the rule is the fact that Eastern Market, like lots of neighborhoods in D.C., seem to be a little like a small town within a big city. We love the Barracks Row neighborhood, sandwiched between Navy Yard and Eastern Market, three blocks filled with Belgian and Irish restaurants, one of the few not-so-nice areas of the city where I would consider living, thanks to the Marines at the gates at the barracks. I also like the North Michigan Park and Woodridge areas in Northeast, with old houses that don't, in any way, look like the fake-brick mini-mansions being thrown up in the suburbs.

We love it here. I wasn't sure we would when we moved, and I really worried about Dan, how he would adjust to the traffic and the noise and all the cultural differences. He's really a small-town boy to the core; growing up in Northern Michigan, never really learning his way around Kalamazoo very well, even after he'd lived there for years. But Dan is the kind of person who expands to fill any space you put him in, and he's developed an appreciation for Washington D.C., partially because it does feel like a series of small towns.

Although most of Eastern Market is fenced off , the main entrance isn't. There is a fence just inside the door, so that people can see what's happened there. We went and gazed in for a few minutes, dismayed at the scorched walls and empty, shattered display cases, the ceiling open to the sky.

Eastern Market will probably be back, and Dan and I will be too. We're relieved that the fire happened at night, that no one was hurt, that none of the buildings around the Market were damaged. We're terribly sad about the fact that a piece of the history of the city was lost like this; it is so tragic. I've developed a greater sense of appreciation for the city's architecture, after reading about Adolph Cluss, the architect who designed the building. There are not many original Cluss buildings left in the city that once had his signature all over it.

Mostly, we are eager to see the Market rise from the ashes, to see that the sense of permanancy that we've craved in the city will return. The city that we've chosen to love and live in deserves to keep Eastern Market. So does the community that has loved it for so long.

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