I feel terrible for essentially abandoning my blog this month. I started a few different posts, but then kept discovering that I needed more research before I could finish them, and then life would get hectic and the posts would get pushed to the side….yes I know, excuses excuses. So in order to get SOMETHING up on here, I’m going to pull from an old project from graduate school on Eastern Market. It’s a lot of information, so I’m going to split it into 2 parts. Today will be Part I, on the market itself. Later in the week I will try to get a post up about the surrounding area.
When French families settled in Detroit in the 18th century, they lived on narrow ribbon farms coming off the Detroit River. However, as the city grew, farms got pushed to the outskirts and more people lived in the city center without access to fresh food. In 1802 the first public market was established downtown at the foot of Woodward. At this market, local farmers brought fresh fruits, vegetables and meat in for city dwellers to buy and eat. City planners moved the market multiple times, first in the 1840s to City Hall, and then to Cadillac Square. In the 1880s, the single market was dismantled and three new markets were created, Eastern Market, Western Market and Chene-Ferry Market. The market was split and moved out of downtown because the city was growing rapidly and needed more food sources, but downtown land was too valuable to bigger businesses to make room for an expanding market. Additionally, city ladies wanted a place to shop that was less dirty and congested than downtown. The location of Eastern Market was chosen for its proximity to Gratiot, an important road for farmers coming into town. Western Market was closed down by the city in the 1960s, and Chene-Ferry was closed in 1990, making Eastern Market the only historical market to remain in Detroit today (and one of the oldest in the country).
The area that is now Eastern Market was originally part of the Guoin family farm. The Guoin’s sold their farm to the city of Detroit in 1834. The city split the land, selling a portion to German immigrants and then turning the rest into a cemetery. The previous city cemetery downtown had become too crowded and the land too valuable to expand. By 1869 this cemetery had become full and in a state of disrepair, leading the Mayor to declare that the site must be cleared and the graves moved. Thus, the cemetery was moved farther from the city to Grosse Point. The new Eastern Market moved in during 1887, and the first permanent sheds, 1 and 2, were built in 1891.
The market became a popular and busy place in the early twentieth century. Three more sheds were built in that era, in 1922, 1929, 1938. The land under sheds 5 and 6 (built in 1965) was not a part of the cemetery like the rest of the market. In 1860 the city used a portion of unused cemetery land to build a House of Corrections on the site. The House of Corrections mostly held local criminals, but it also received overflow from state and federal penitentiaries. People in the jail mainly spent their time building furniture, as it was believed that industrious activity fostered rehabilitation. The facility continued to exist along with the market through the turn of the century and was finally torn down in 1931.The area just north of the House of Corrections was a contagious disease hospital, built in 1842 by Dr. George B. Russell and used to treat poor residents of the city free of charge.
After WWII, the market and the city began to change. Many people left the city for the suburbs, and scientific advancements such as refrigeration allowed food to be stored for longer times. These suburbs saw the rise of supermarkets full of food stored and shipped from all over the country and world, making a farmer’s market of fresh local food less important to the average consumer. The market itself became more focused on wholesale goods and became a hub for southeast Michigan food distribution. Although one more shed was built in 1965, it was only built to accommodate vendors from Western Market, which closed down that same year. Two years later Shed 1 was torn down to make way for I-75, which runs next to the market. Farmer’s markets were clearly becoming less popular as fewer and fewer people used them to do their personal shopping. However, that soon began to change.
In 1970, the market had become shabby and was in dire need of a change. Yet there was little money available to make any big changes in the market. So the first revitalization efforts were simple: large colorful murals to brighten up the sheds and nearby buildings. These murals were created by Alex Pollard and were quickly embraced by the surrounding community as they made the market look fresh and fun. Soon there were 30 buildings with Pollock murals in the area. The Veggie-ta-Bull on the Metro Cold Storage building is one of the most famous, and incorporates two of the most important products of the market: vegetables and meat. The chicken mural on Shed 2 was also very popular, although it has since been removed to return Shed 2 to its historic appearance. 1970 also saw the first annual Flower Day, an event in May that was started to encourage people to come out to the market. On this day, almost the entire market focuses on flowers, and greenhouses from all over Michigan as well as Ohio and Ontario send plants to be sold at the market. It is one of the largest flower markets in the nation. More than 150,000 people come to Flower Day on average, making it also the most profitable day for sellers in the market.
These changes were very helpful in attracting more people to the market. In the late 20th century, a renewed interest in fresh and local ingredients in cooking also brought people back into the market in search of alternative food sources. Thanks to renewed interest in the market in the past thirty years, more changes have been made to continue these improvements. In 2006, the city turned over control of Eastern Market to a non-profit group, the Eastern Market Corporation, which has been able to devote all its time and resources to improving the market. The Eastern Market Corporation is working hard to turn the market into a year round, six day a week activity that will draw even more people into the city and turn the district into a vibrant neighborhood. Already they have added Tuesday hours in addition to the traditional Saturday morning market and have renovated Shed 3, enclosing it and adding radiant floor heating to allow it to be used year round. Plans are in place to update Sheds 4 and 5, with 5 next on the list. Shed 5 will include a community kitchen, which will be used to teach classes as well as help food entrepreneurs start new businesses. Today, Eastern Market is more popular than ever and crowded with people ever Saturday morning in the summer. Don’t let the crowds scare you away though – definitely go and check it out!
Deeb, Ed. “Market History.” Detroit Eastern Market.
De Weese, Pamela. The Detroit Eastern Farmers’ Market: its social structure and functions. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975.
“Eastern Market: A Historic District” pamphlet, Preservation Wayne Historical Archives
“Eastern Market Development Plan.” Detroit Eastern Market.
“Eastern Market Tour Template 2010” Preservation Wayne, Detroit.
Gavrilovich, Peter and Bill McGraw. The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of Life in the Motor City. Detroit: The Detroit Free Press, 2000.
Gallagher, John and Kathleen Grey. “Signing of bill clears way for makeover for Eastern Market’s Shed 5,” Detroit Free Press, December 20, 2012
Johnson, Lori and Margaret Thomas. Detroit’s Eastern Market: A Farmers Market Shopping and Cooking Guide. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.
Marilyn Ross to Katherine, Correspondence. May 6, 1998. Eastern Market folder, Preservation Wayne Historical Archives, Detroit.
Silven, Sandra. “The Big Wheel at Eastern Market.” The Detroit News. March 1, 1987. Preservation Wayne Historic Archives, Detroit.
United States Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places Registration form: Eastern Market (Boundary Increase). Detroit, 2002.
United States Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places: Eastern Market. Detroit, 1977.
White, Tenisha. “Flower Day at Eastern Market,” The Detroit News, May 18, 1995, Eastern Market Folder, Preservation Wayne Historical Archives, Detroit.
Woodford, Frank and Arthur. All Our Yesterdays: A Brief History of Detroit. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969.