When I was six or seven years old, I thought the most prestigious university in the world was WSMU. At every family gathering, my uncle would invariably invoke the lessons learned at WSMU to settle any argument. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I learned WSMU was not a college at all, but instead my uncle’s euphemistic reference to the hard-scrabble education one gains by working for decades at the West Side Market.
Everyone in my family, going back to 1912 when the market first opened, earned at least a few credits at WSMU. My great-grandfather and his father immigrated from Italy in the early 1900’s and were one of the very first vendors to open a stand at the newly-built West Side Market, selling produce in the original outdoor arcade. My grandfather, Joe Romano, eventually took the reins from his father and carried on the family business. And a family business it was, in more ways than one.
Every Saturday, Grandpa dragged his three kids to the market to work at the stand. But my mom, aunt, and uncle were not alone in their child labor experience. Dozens of vendors brought their children to work, usually out of necessity for an extra pair of hands. I first earned this “privilege” when I was ten or eleven. These families worked alongside each other often for decades. The children – “Market Kids,” as so many refer to themselves – came of age at the market and forged lasting bonds with each other.
Those that grew up at the market all understand what it means to wake up at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to stand on your feet for twelve hours after only getting a few hours of sleep after Friday night’s festivities (I vividly remember getting to bed one Friday at 2:00 a.m. and experiencing absolute dread as I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m.). They know what it was like to grab a nap under the stand as a little kid just trying to make it through the long day. They all knew who was dating whom, who could buy them beer, and who could cover for them while they snuck off for a quick nap in the cooler. A unique culture was borne out of these relationships and experiences that transcended age, gender, ethnicity, and race.
Many market kids stayed to take over their family’s business. That’s what my uncle and mom did. For so many vendors, that was the expectation. Build a business and pass it on to the next generation.
Unfortunately, decades of mismanagement have taken away that option for so many long-time vendors, causing them to close up shop. When routine maintenance calls go unanswered, faultily-wired stands are electrocuting employees, and sometimes the electricity doesn’t work at all—as happened on one recent Saturday— how can you expect to carry on a business? With no coherent strategy from the city for attracting shoppers lured away by big-box grocery stores and online shopping, how long can vendors be expected to stick it out as business dries up?
Sadly, market vendors say they’ve had to learn to cope without the city’s help. “I’ve been here long enough that I’ve just learned to fend for myself because I know I’m not going to get any help or assistance from the city,” Diane Dever or Irene Dever’s dairy stand told Ideastream. “My stuff will stay for a couple extra days compared to the guys that have fresh meat, pork and chicken. So I was very fortunate.”
“If they would have bought a generator years ago, it would have paid for itself,” she added. “This isn’t the first time the power has gone off.”
Longtime vendor Don Whitaker of Whitaker’s Meats said real, meaningful change is needed – not band-aids or consultant recommendations that sit on a shelf or take too long to implement. “They just can’t admit they cannot run something,” said Whitaker, who believes that the city needs to look at a new management model for the market, such as a nonprofit. “And that’s just so troublesome. If I ask for help, I need help, you know? This is not rocket science. It just comes down to being properly managed. That’s all.”
Lost in these closures, besides many families’ source of income, is that sense of history and culture developed over generations of family ownership that made the market a truly one-of-a-kind place. Very few businesses manage to stay open for forty or fifty years. Until recently, the market housed dozens of fifty-year-old-plus businesses under one roof. Not many places in America could say the same. It’s because of those generational family businesses—where the person behind the counter watched you grow up and now knows your children—that the market maintains such a special place in so many Clevelanders’ hearts.
News that the City of Cleveland has finally selected a consultant to help fix the market’s myriad problems is certainly welcomed. But so much has already been lost. We should not have to wait even another month, let alone the many more months required for the consultant to make his recommendations, before the city finally addresses the market’s maintenance issues and capital repairs. Vendors are hurting now, and every passing day without at least addressing basic maintenance issues is a day we risk losing another vendor.
With every Market Kid-turned-Market vendor that leaves, a piece of history is lost that can never be replaced. It is this history that makes the West Side Market such a cherished cultural institution in Cleveland. The City of Cleveland must take seriously its responsibility as shepherd of this unique culture and history and start fixing the market’s maintenance problems now before it’s too late.
Got an opinion about the West Side Market? Contact Mayor Frank Jackson here: https://www.clevelandohio.gov/CityofCleveland/Home/contact
Frank Camardo is an attorney in Cleveland.