Devon Community Market, Part I

This is the first installment of a four-part series examining the Devon Community Market, its creation, history, profitability, and problems, as reflected in the City’s official records, obtained using FOIA, and other sources. The City’s records are incomplete, reluctantly disclosed, and conceal more than they reveal. Some information and other records may be held by other entities, the City being only one of the Market’s several sponsors.

The official records that do exist are held by DCASE (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events), and do not include profit and loss records, although the event is largely funded by public monies, some coming directly from the City, from the alderman, or from a state senator; some money comes from the special assessment that funds the Devon SSA.  The search for official records continues.

Creation and History

In the Spring of 2015 a meeting was held at Ald. Silverstein’s office to discuss the creation of a community market for West Ridge. According to a DNA Info article by Ben Woodard dated April 25, residents were invited to meet with representatives from the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, DCASE, and potential vendors about the market.  Like most of the neighborhood, I was unaware of the meeting, nor did I find any reference to it in a review of the alderman’s newsletters from Spring 2013.

The DCASE rep, Yesenia Mota, was described as the City’s farmers’ markets coordinator. Mota described the City as having “outgrown farmers markets” and claimed it was ” better to have a market with local businesses” and some farmers. She was quoted by Woodard as stating, “Obviously, you can’t have a Lincoln Square market here–it’s really diverse. It’s really an opportunity for all this diversity to come together.”

Why neighborhood diversity should have a negative impact on the sale of a full spectrum of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and plants was not explained.

What the City had decided, according to Mota and a press release from DCASE, was that it would sponsor four community markets in addition to its ongoing Farmers Markets, and one of those four would be in West Ridge. It fell to the alderman’s office, DCASE, and Amie Zander, then-Executive Director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, to recruit vendors. The 2013 market would be a trial run, scheduled for one Sunday per month from June through September, from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., in the then-new Republic Bank parking lot at Washtenaw and Devon.

The event was designed to showcase local artisans and businesses as well as live entertainment, with the soundstage set up diagonally across the southeast corner of the lot so as to maximize the volume on Devon Avenue in an attempt to attract shoppers. That the speakers were blasting directly into homes across the alley from the parking lot was not a consideration for the event’s organizers.

The first Devon Community Market had 17 vendors, 11 of them nonprofit agencies and organizations offering brochures, fact sheets, and other information (the alderman’s office was one of those represented). Apart from the entertainment stage, announced vendors included a wood worker, a jewelry artist, a face painter, and a couple of farmers. Customers were few. The three subsequent markets had a bit more variety, and neighborhood mainstay and good corporate citizen Ted’s Market came through with solid merchandise offerings from its store shelves. For at least two of the remaining three markets, Ted’s seemed to be the only vendor attracting shoppers. One vendor made a single appearance with merchandise that was apparently selected as the promised “ethnic novelties.”  A review of the photos on the Market’s Facebook page shows very few customers in attendance, and an over-reliance on close-ups of produce that was not in evidence at the market itself.

Nevertheless, Zander, appearing on Avy Meyers’ Northtown News Magazine program, said that the 2013 trial run proved that “…this is the right area for it.” She went on to note that the market was a response to resident complaints that West Ridge lacked a Farmers Market like Andersonville and other neighborhoods have, and noted that the market’s 2014 evening hours would bring people to Devon when all the businesses are open.

Zander was in attendance at the four 2013 markets and was largely responsible for vendor recruitment. That she did a poor job was evident. As for the comparison to Andersonville, that neighborhood’s 2013 market included approximately 30 vendors selling fresh produce, flowers, cheese, wine, fresh meat, honey, and bakery goods, among other vendors. It was Andersonville’s fifth market, true, but why the merchandise on sale there should be considered unappealing in a diverse neighborhood remains a puzzle.  (Interview available on the Devon Community Market Facebook Timeline, dated May 19, 2014, part of a discussion about neighborhood news.)

In her end-of-year newsletter, the alderman described the market as a place where “…business owners and vendors from our neighborhood and beyond had the chance to highlight the 50th Ward’s unique food, goods, and culture to the rest of the city. Shoppers and browsers were treated to farm stands jam-packed with fresh fruits, vegetables and produce…booths stuffed with baked goods and all the ethnic novelties that make the 50th Ward so amazing.”  It was nothing of the kind.

The 2013 Devon Community Market was an abject failure by any objective measure. That fact was not lost on the vendors, the residents, or some of the organizers. Every effort would be made to make 2014 better. Despite the unexamined contradictions in the Market’s basic concept and its resulting organizational problems, the 2014 Devon Community Market came close to being a success in many ways.

Tuesday: The Devon Community Market Retools for 2014

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