And the New Folks still do at Cleveland’s Famous Westside Market
Growing up in what was essentially Ohio's answer to Mayberry, USA, going to the market meant walking two blocks down Wooster Street to Underwood's Supermarket. That was for the day-to-day needs. And once a week Mom would take the station wagon up to the Kroger's to stock up on all the stuff she'd need to cook three meals a day for a family of six. That was food shopping in the last third of the last century.
I grew up thinking meat naturally came wrapped in clear plastic.
Then I moved to Cleveland where I eventually found The West Side Market. What a treasure. I'd wander the vast indoor hall filled with stall after stall each overflowing with homemade sausages, a thousand different cheeses, every imaginable pastry, eggs and dairy and candies and pierogis and piles of fresh and smoked fish. On the way out, I'd stop and buy myself fresh flowers to take home.
Later, studying journalism at Case Western Reserve University with former Time Magazine investigative reporter, Ted Gup I was assigned to shadow a local professional for a day. That’s how I found myself trotting along behind Executive Chef Eric Williams of the then very popular new Ohio City eatery, Johnny Mango. Fun fact: Johnny Mango hits 27 years in business this year.
Eric Williams was committed to maintaining the already top reputation Johnny Mango enjoyed. The tiny restaurant, specializing in Mexican, Asian, and Caribbean foods, opened shortly before I moved away from Cleveland, but I loved the place and often went there with friends.
Out in the produce arcade, he approached Ayham Abazab who immediately pulled out a pad of paper and pen when he saw Williams. Abazab’s stand had been open for seven years at that point, making him a relative newcomer to the Market. Writing quickly, Abazab assured Williams that the cases of produce would be waiting on a pallet within half an hour.
A quick stop by Romano’s produce stand to order out-of-season mangos and then it was time to move indoors. Inside the echoing, cavernous main building voices and laughter bounced around. It was warm and bright and smelled wonderful. Vendors leaned over counters to better hear customers.
Meister’s dairy stand had been there forever. Ed Meister joked with several customers simultaneously while weighing chunks of Parmesan cheese. For 22 years Meister’s had offered what Williams considered a consistently good product. In addition to Meister himself, the tiny stand is staffed by a trio of laughing young women. Williams hefted a large box of feta cheese and moved on to the next stand.
Ohio City Pasta had a stand there as well. Pausing to talk, Gary Thomas, wiped his hands on his apron and talked about loving his job. “You never know from day to day what will happen in here. It’s great!” He’d begun seeing an increase of tourists in the past several years, as well as what he called “adventurous diners” coming in from the suburbs. A market cannot survive as a tourist attraction, he maintained; unless it offers what the local community needs and wants, it will not last. The only other place Thomas had seen a Market like this one was in Florence, Italy.
The Westside Market opened in 1912. A commission to draw up plans for the Market was appointed by the city in 1898. The fourteen years between inception and completion were dominated by political squabbling which only subsided in 1910 when construction began. The reported cost: $710,000. The opening of the Market was celebrated with a band concert, parades, masked carnivals, and endless speeches.
The fourteen years of political infighting that preceded the actual building of the Market was being played out again 87 years later as this generation of politicians wrangled over how to modernize the old building.
For decades, produce vendors huddled around space heaters and blew on their freezing fingers with only heavy, black tarps between them and the elements every winter. Construction had finally begun on enclosing the produce arcade at the end of the 20th century.
Anchoring this whole part of the city is the Westside Market. Its 137-foot tall clock tower remains a landmark and now the Market is open on Sundays. There are whole generations of new customers who frequent the Market who moved there or were born since I left. They are among an estimated million annual visitors who find the same warmth, deliciousness, and vitality that I so treasured when I lived there.
Long may The Market thrive!