WASHINGTON – As hundreds of shoppers bustled toward the entrance of the newly renovated Eastern Market on Saturday,David Bernhardt crouched beside his 2-year-old daughter,Coriell,under an awning across the street. They shared strawberries they had just bought at the farmers' line.
Bernhardt,now a property manager,sold jewelry and Guatemalan imports at the city's 136-year-old public market as a teenager.
“It was really cool,” he said. “There are some people here still who've seen me buy my first house and have my first set of kids.”
Members of the Capitol Hill neighborhood feared this sense of community and continuity would be lost when a three-alarm fire blazed through the market's South Hall in April 2007. The fire displaced vendors,many of whom had sold food in the building for decades,into a tent in an adjacent school parking lot.
Located just eight blocks from the Capitol,Eastern Market's brick shed building is the last remaining part of what used to be a citywide public market system. Housing about a dozen independent stalls,the market is a precursor to the modern grocery store.
The cause of the fire is undetermined,according to the D.C. Fire Department,though the investigation is ongoing. With help from the federal government,the city invested $22 million to repair the damage.
Vendors and the Capitol Hill neighborhood rejoiced at the end of the two-year-long restoration Friday,when Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty cut a ribbon tied across Eastern Market's entrance to mark its reopening.
“Ideally,you wouldn't want to have had to restore Eastern Market,but there are some things that are improved,” Fenty said to an audience of hundreds. He announced that the rebuilt South Hall now has air conditioning and new restrooms,drawing hearty cheers and applause.
After cutting the ribbon,Fenty led photographers,schoolchildren and droves of customers through the entrance. Though elbow room was lacking,the lofty ceilings and the sunshine pouring through the newly uncovered skylights gave the building an airy,spacious feel.
The mayor stopped by Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables,a staple of the market since 1963,to buy bananas and other fruit.
“He's in good with mom,” said Leon Calomiris,son of the owners,Chris and Maria. Maria Calomiris said she loves the renovations.
“It's like a luxurious hotel,” she said. “We're very,very happy.”
Angie Brunson,whose Blue Iris Flowers stall has been in the market since 1976,celebrated by passing out her business's namesake flower to shoppers.
“We were very sad when the old one burned,and the mayor said we'd be back in two years,and we're back – two years exactly,” she said.
Susan Johnson,who runs a jewelry stall called Lilypad Designs in the outdoor flea market,said the reopened South Hall will help her business,too. Many customers mistakenly believed that the fire had displaced the outdoor weekend markets as well,she said.
“I still have people asking me,‘Where are you selling now that Eastern Market's closed?'” she said. “We've been here every single weekend.”
Robert “Bunk” Knopp,who sells produce at the outdoor farmers' market,said his business experienced a similar drop after the fire.
“I think it's all going to come back – and maybe more – because now we have attention,” he said.
Customers and revelers streamed into Eastern Market throughout the weekend. On Saturday,a New Orleans jazz band performed on an outdoor stage. A troupe of hula hoop dancers twirled to “Thriller.” Clowns twisted balloon animals and painted children's faces.
Inside,50 customers lined up for blueberry pancakes or crab cake sandwiches at the renowned Market Lunch. Customers said “welcome back” and “congratulations” as they made their purchases. Occasionally,merchants and shoppers shook hands or embraced warmly.
Joyce Stewart,62,a clerk for the Prince George's County public schools,has been coming to shop at Eastern Market from Upper Marlboro,Md.,for 10 years.
“I just like the atmosphere,” she said. “You come here and you see everything and everybody. You see all different types and nationalities,and you buy. It's good. I like it.”
Justin Field,29,a legislative assistant to Sen. Robert Menendez,D-N.J.,said he has purchased his lunch meats at the market since he began working on the Hill six years ago. Field said the familiar faces and the quality of the food make Eastern Market incomparable to a supermarket.
“This place is a real economic nexus,” Field said. “In terms of revenue,in terms of attraction to the city,I wish there were more places like this. It really makes the whole neighborhood.”
Though support for the market is widespread,the community has often disagreed about how best to preserve it.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony,the District's non-voting congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton referred to years of neighborhood tensions surrounding renovations to the market: “You fought and debated about the market so long that the devil stepped in and just burned it down.”
Chuck Brome,owner of Eastern Market Pottery since 1974,said there has long been friction over whether to maintain the community feeling of the market,or to push the neighborhood toward becoming “another Georgetown.” Brome said his shop,newly relocated to the market basement,has given pottery lessons to the wives of Nixon administration officials and the wife of Dan Rather.
“This market has had for all of its existence a multicultural,crossing-class-lines character that has been good,and it might be lost if it becomes too – to use a bad expression – ‘yuppified,'” Brome said.
Opportunities for debate remain. Increasing parking and adding more boutique shops to the neighborhood are perennial issues,Brome said. But the fire made preserving the market the top priority.
“With the disagreement there was stasis,” he said. “Nothing happened. The fire erased all that disagreement,and the urgency became to get this thing back,to keep as much character as could be.”