The 61st Street Farmers Market
Principle: You can't do it alone
By Meg MacIver
Imagine a sunny summer Chicago morning – it’s Saturday, and the sun is warm and bright. On this morning, like every Saturday since last May, a market springs to life on the South Side, in a corner lot between the Hyde Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods. Under tents along the street, vendors set up tables and spread out cheeses and peaches and breads. People from both sides of the Midway come together to talk, laugh and eat. They stroll slowly past to the stands, some cradling sunflowers, some walking with their bikes and friends.
This is the 61st Street Farmer’s Market, a vibrant oasis of fresh, locally-grown food in an area of Chicago many studies have deemed a “food desert.” Founded to provide fresh food to this underserved community, the market also has helped transform a quiet city corner into a busy, casual neighborhood gathering place.
Unlike other Chicago markets, 61st Street is not managed by the Mayor’s Office. Instead, it’s independently run by a group of neighbors who founded it because they had “suffered for a long time from not having a place to buy food nearby,” said Kate Miller, who leads the market’s Steering Committee. “No grocery stores have been recruited to this area.”
To get the market off the ground, in early 2007, small group of concerned residents started meeting and gathering information about what kind of market would serve the area best. They interviewed many people in the community to gauge interest and to ask what kinds of food they would want to see at their market. The group met regularly to strategize about the market, seek partners, and make fundraising plans. They also involved their alderman and decided to hire a consultant to conduct a detailed study of the area and to recommend what type and size of market would be most likely to succeed.
“It’s much more of a meeting place than a supermarket is,” explained Leo Gertner, a market volunteer. It’s also a bridge between communities that otherwise might not overlap. “We think the location of the market on 61st Street is really important to making it the meeting place we were hoping for,” explained Miller. “It’s not in Hyde Park, it’s not in Woodlawn. It’s really on the border.”
The market is an “integrative institution,” said Connie Spreen, executive director of the Experimental Station, the nonprofit organization that hosts the market. “People are mixing here in a way they never could have otherwise.” This diversity means that the Market might not be “a community of people you identify with immediately,” something which Spreen says makes the environment there “much more dynamic.”
When it’s warm, everyone meets outside. Throughout the fall and well into December, the market moves indoors to a big room in the Experimental Station.
The Experimental Station calls itself an “incubator for social change” and has adopted the market as one of its programs. It is an organization committed to providing “essential resources that enable vulnerable, yet valuable initiatives,” like the market, “to stabilize and flourish.” (Read more at http://www.experimentalstation.org).
The market’s Steering Committee also partnered with the Experimental Station to plan fundraising efforts.
The market had relatively low start-up costs, but does require ongoing funding. “It is not a self-sustaining enterprise, since we don’t take money from the vendors,” explained Gertner. “We do rent tables, but for a nominal fee. Any profit goes toward advertising,” as well as things like the machines needed to process food stamps, which all vendors accept.
Spreen says the market is very different from a big chain supermarket. “We’re not outsourcing here. This is about building a sense of community and place.”
The Market and the Experimental Station’s other programs have added some much- needed life to this slice of the South Side. “This area used to be very desolate, and there was a lot of drug trade,” said Gertner. “But now these activities have neutralized a lot of the negative aspects of this area.”
Indeed, the 61st Street Farmer’s Market not only gives South Side residents a convenient way to buy fresh, locally grown food, but also a busy, safe place to gather and meet their neighbors on Saturday mornings – sometimes for the first time.
According to PPS, every great place has at least 10 different things to do. The 61st Street Farmer’s Market is no exception. You can:
- Buy food for you and your family
- Eat what you’ve bought
- Visit with old friends
- Meet new ones
- Pet the sheep and other animals that vendors bring along as demonstration
- Attend a cooking workshop
- Sip slow-drip coffee at the Backstory Cafe in the Experimental Station
- Drop off your bike for a tune-up at the Blackstone Bicycle Works repair shop nearby
- Listen to live music
- Talk to vendors and learn about what they sell