Highland Park’s Withering Fruit

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Many of the newer and wealthier residents to Northeast LA have a penchant for complaining about how they wish their new neighborhood was more like the old one they left, and that usually means being able to buy some bullshit item or other, usually a particular brand of coffee or some needless service they claim they can’t live without. (Why they escape the suburbs only to try and replicate those same trappings I’ll never understand.) One non-asinine idea they did get excited for was a Farmers Market: they talked and talked about how great that would be and how they (and their friends) would jump at the idea of supporting one in Highland Park. Eventually, someone did the work to make it happen, and now NELA has its own Old LA Farmers Market. It started out as a fine market, with plenty of booths full of good looking fruits and veggies, and lots of people milling around. But lately, it seems the realities of the market economy have started to make a dent in Highland Park’s perceptions of what type of businesses it can really sustain.

Despite all that fluffy talk of support, the shoppers for the weekly Tuesday market have dwindled, and understandably, many of the vendors have also stopped showing up. Even though the market organizers actually do a good job of getting the word out about their event, you can see from the pics that its looking quite barren, and these were taken at what should have been a peak market time. Not many customers or produce merchants. Mind you, this is in the same community that wanted a Whole Foods but instead got a Superior Super Warehouse, which appears to be doing well despite a similar Food4Less just over the hill. Can Highland Park support upscale establishments or even the slightly more expensive food of a Farmers Market? Despite all the recent gentrification, the answer is most likely no. The many self delusions about the “up and coming” neighborhood can’t erase the fact that Highland Park is still a mostly working class part of town, and poor people usually don’t have much extra money to spend. As to why those with money don’t show up, I’d really like to know.

I hope the Farmers Market gets back to top form and continues to provide a wide range of produce. But if it does fail, it’ll not be the first enterprise abandoned by that fickle crowd of monied shoppers.

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22 Replies to “Highland Park’s Withering Fruit”

  1. Sigh. I miss home. I’ll check out the farmer’s market in a couple of tuesday’s when i’m back in hlp for a few days..thanks for the photos! and for mentioning Highland Park!

  2. I’ve never been to any of the farmers markets nearby. I get most of my fruits and vegetables “shopping” at home. My mom buys them from la Superior which is less expensive than any of the bigger chains. Considering how much Latinos love fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s sad the farmer’s market can’t be sustained.

  3. I’m going to have to disagree with your line “do a good job of getting the word out” because I’ve lived in Highland Park for 16 years and until I was circling the block last night looking for parking, I had no idea that I had a farmer’s market 3 minutes from my house. Had I known, I certainly would have been dropping by on my way home from work, instead of driving to the Pasadena farmer’s market to do my shopping! Now I know, but from your pictures and what I saw last night, it’s probably too late.

  4. I’ve lived in HLP my entire life and had heard of the Farmer’s Market when it started up. My brother and his wife frequent it often. I would say the word does get around.

  5. The one thing I miss about my old neighborhood is the produce truck. Sure, it used to block the driveway of my apt. building, but if I needed cilantro or an onion, it was there for me.

  6. Karen,
    Really? They put out weekly emails about what’s in season that make it to the local lists and I’ve seen good old paper flyers at the local libraries. And I even think they set up booths at different events to promote the market.

    Evan,
    Well that produce truck was probably better stocked than yesterdays market: not one vendor had cilantro, onions, or chiles, kinda staples around these parts.

  7. I think they do a good job of getting the word out. I always see flyers or mentions about it online.

    But….who can go midday during the midweek? Why is it never on a weekend? Never understood that. Guess a lot of people don’t work around here.

  8. (Different Evan BTW)

    El Chavo! The question you should be asking is not why the sprinkling of gentrifiers aren’t using the market (they probably are in their small numbers), but why all the working class families aren’t. Perhaps it’s a matter of cost (or assumed cost), perhaps it’s that said promotion isn’t targeting the right people, maybe it’s that those families are just used to the inferior but cheap mass produce at Food4Less.

    Whatever it is, it could be addressed if the organizers wanna save it. But as long as fresh produce in a local setting is viewed as only appropriate for higher income gentrifiers (which you seem to suggest) than, yes, I guess it doesn’t belong in a still lower-middle class hood. But that seems short-sighted.

    I live down the street and would love to see it succeed. And I don’t think that requires having South Pas. demographics, just some community support.

  9. I’m the volunteer who runs the market website (more properly, the friends of the market), writes the promotional emails etc. Why the market is struggling is obviously a really complicated question, and with my biased role, I’m going to refrain from commenting extensively.

    What I’ll say is that any market is exactly as good as the community support that it receives. That support has been weak from the beginning and the farmers have been responding to that. As far as prices are concerned, farmers markets are obviously going to be, generally, more expensive than supermarkets like Food4Less. That being said, the prices at this market are the lowest that I’ve ever seen.

    If people have specific ideas on promotion/market improvement, I would be very happy to hear them.

    ps, El Chavo, cilantro was available yesterday (and is every week) from our herb vendor FrogDog farms. Chiles are out of season now, any vendor selling them is probably not practicing the art of agriculture.

  10. The Old L.A. Farmers Market was originally slatted to be open from April to November. The North Figeuroa Assoc. felt that those were the prime months of operation. After much public outcry for the market to be open all year round. We decided to do this. We felt llike having the presence in the community was important. We wanted to be someplace people in HP can depend on every Tuesday from 3-8p.m rain or shine. We did not want to be like most things that happen in H.P. and just fade away or not do what we said.

    Most of our farmers have been hurt from the frost. When they attend several markets a week they do not have enough produce to go around. They have also been hurt by the community not supporting the market. But don’t fret, almost all of our farmers, artists, crafters and community organizations have committed to come back in March and April.

    We still have several farmers and hot food vendors who come every week. We might be small right now but in the next few weeks when all the spring crops come in we will once again be mighty. We are finalizing the event calendar for this year and you can expect some fun and exciting events to take place. We are a dedicated group and we feel that HP deserve to have a great farmers market.

    Come on out every Tuesday and enjoy the food, produce and music. Come by the managers booth and say Hello, we are very friendly, get a frequent visitors card. This card earns your way to free gifts. We also have goodies for the kids. The fun and the challenges never stop. Check out oldla.org to learn more about the market.

  11. I understand completely what you’re talking about. I live in Glassel Park, up on the hill (technically the same hill as Mount Washington), and up on said hill it is all, pardon my vernacular, gringos and assorted Volvo drivers. Down the hill it is completely working class Hispanic familes with a sprinkling of Chinese folks. Part of me is dying for a closer Trader Joes (because I do not have expensive enough jeans for the Silverlake TJs and the Eagle Rock one is a little far) but I know it’s inconceivable right now. Gentrification hasn’t REALLY set in. It’s just that a select bunch of us happened to find the last affordable real estate in LA, in Northeast LA!

  12. Since it was asked, might I suggest a few things?

    Hire a Spanish speaker or someone familiar with the Latino community to work at the information booth. I asked once about vending and was given a skeptical look up and down and then asked quite patronizingly “Do YOU shop here?” This person’s attitude made me feel quite unwelcome as if I was so ghetto I could not possibly sell anything they’d be interested in. I’m offering this information because I know others have witnessed this kind of attitude there as well and it might be one of the reasons why some in the community have stopped attending.

  13. Evan,

    I think cost is the main reason lower income people don’t use the FM as frequently: when you go through lots of tomatillos, buy cilantro in 4-5 bunches at a time, and get full bags of chiles, that small price increase does make a difference, even if the HP market does have some of the lowest prices. By no means am I suggesting that the market doesn’t belong, I’m just perplexed at why all those that talk up HP and want fancy places can’t be bothered to follow thru.

    Sbudick and Misty, thanks for the info from your end, I’m sure it’s a lot of thankless work. You’re right, most items are still out of season, hopefully it’ll pick up when the crops start coming in. But maybe you need to put some heat on those that want quality food yet don’t come out? Not that I would know how to do that, maybe hire some crazy sign holders to stand at the freeway off ramps when the market is on? Threaten people with the corn roaster? Challenge them to a tamal eating contest?

  14. El Chavo!,
    I think you make a really interesting point. As I said, chiles are not in season now, and neither are tomatillos. If your diet absolutely requires these items, you’re going to be out of luck at any farmers market for the next few months. This raises the question then of what a traditional Mexican diet looks like in the winter months (I’m sorry that my ancestry leaves me so ignorant). With most of the country at high elevation, I assume that the growing season, say in upland Michoacan, doesn’t look that different from Southern California’s, though I might be completely wrong.

    I would absolutely love to have more culturally appropriate produce at the market, but I honestly don’t know what that means in the winter months. Part of making a farmers market work is convincing peaople to eat seasonally, which is vastly easier here than almost anywhere else in the US. Nevertheless, there are limitations, and helping one to appreciate the seasonal rhythms is one of the functional and aesthetic benefits of a farmers market.

  15. Thanks everyone for all the info. The important thing to learn from this discussion is to SUPPORT your local businesses. I don’t mind paying a bit more for (often better) products like the wines at my local wine store (instead of TJ’s 2 buck Chuck) or for cheese and pickles at my local cheese store (instead of Vons or TJ’s). I also shop for clothes and gifts at my local shops instead of buying generic at the dreaded mall. I like knowing that my money is being spent locally instead of going to some anonymous corporation. You need to support your community to help it grow into the neighgborhood you want it to be. It’s always amazing to me how many people who insist that they “speak” for the community don’t actually know any of their local businesses (except for restaurants).

  16. Yeah, my diet “absolutely requires” chiles and tomatillos, but I can get those elsewhere and I do eat other stuff. Like for example all the different items that were available yesterday at the Santa Monica market, I came back with quite a selection. I don’t think the problem is the lack of culturally appropriate food, it’s the lack of food. You have the challenge of a circular problem: no food = no customers = no food, etc. and something needs to be done to stop that downward spiral.

  17. I always wonder if the customers who would frequent that farmer’s market are home when the market is open? I ride past it on the Gold Line, sometimes getting out to grab some lettuce or whatnot. I just wonder if that area is becoming a bedroom community where there are just not enough people home and able to get to the market at 4pm on a Tuesday?

    Also, I wonder if the thin turnout is seasonal? Even the Saturday morning Pasadena market near my apartment is low on farmers and customers these months.

  18. I haven’t been to the HLP market (or many local ones) but back a long time ago, I used to go to the San Francisco FM. This was on the border of the Tenderloin, and was a bit different from other FMs. First off, you could use food stamps at many of the booths, so there was a lot of income diversity. Second, there wasn’t any kind of big restriction on having non-farmer vendors, so you’d get some awesome deals on staple vegetables. Third, there were a pretty good number of organic farmers in the mix, so you could choose organic or not. Fourth, at one time, they had live chickens for sale – a treat because there weren’t many poultry shops in SF then. Fifth, the market was open from around 11AM, and some people went during lunch (probably would not work in HLP).

  19. Seriously – this market is stashed in a parking lot behind a bunch of low-rent retail businesses. It is designed to fail.

    The powers that be need to shut down one side of Figueroa, or close a street by the train station to give the market the visibility it needs to survive.

    This is so typical of the Eastside! Everything pulls together for one, shitty, effort to reverse 60 long years of poor planning and transportation investments.

  20. The obstacles that the HP Farmers’ Market, along with all other start-up farmers’ markets in Los Angeles, are many. But I believe that the HP community and its market management have the heart needed to overcome these obstacles and, in time, sustain a successful farmers’ market.

    Much of the current problem is seasonal. The winter affects all FMs adversely–particularly the night markets. I am sure that the Santa Monica or Hollywood or Pasadena farmers’ markets have a larger variety of produce available right now than what you can find in Highland Park. But all markets–even the biggest, oldest and best of them (as the aforementioned markets are)–do see a smaller number of vendors and customers during the winter months. In Southern California, we are lucky to have FMs open year round; but on the whole we still don’t feel like hanging out and eating dinner while our teeth are chattering (though I will recommend the tamales at the HPFM as the best cure for the shivers that I’ve ever encountered). This winter, with the frost, has been particularly hard. Some farmers, with limited produce and financial resources, have been forced to temporarily drop some markets; it’s only logical that the newest FMs would be the first to go (as farmers have yet to establish a 15some year old clientele in HP). Though I do miss the staple veggies in HP (and the vendor loss = customer loss cycle = more vendor loss = more…is painful), I am very pleased to go home in HP with the best citrus that I can find at any of the smaller markets, including: blood oranges and cara cara (and I can also get whole nuts here, which I love). As far as the hours of the HPFM, I think that they are actually optimal. There are only so many farmers to go around (and soooooo many markets). The competition to bring farmers into newly opened weekend markets is great. While I do have trouble making it to the 7 o’clock closing time, when the hours shift back to 3-8 in summer, I will enjoy the chance to relax at the market as I shop after work. (I can never get up early for weekend markets anyway.) The biggest and best markets simply are the oldest. They’ve been in existence for over 15 years and became established in an era that only had a few FMs in LA County (now there are over 80). It takes time for businesses to become established. It takes time for people to incorporate their neighborhood market into their weekly shopping routine; and it takes time for people to develop a rapport with the farmers at their market. Perhaps there is a problem in every community wanting a farmers’ market. Or maybe the problem lies more accurately in everyone wanting the farmers’ market of their old community. The HPFM will never be the Santa Monica, Hollywood, or Pasadena Farmers’ Market. It will be the Highland Park Farmers’ Market. It will have tomatillos when they are in season. It will accept food stamps and WIC/Senior farmers’ market coupons. It will have low prices and primarily Latino shoppers. It might not have many “certified organic” vendors (with their high cost of produce to compensate for certification fees and bureaucracy). The beautiful thing about the HPFM is that it is ours as a community, and it will reflect us as a community. As it’s developing, we can walk up to the management in the booth, voice our needs and request certain vendors. They are actively trying to meet our needs. But in the end, the HPFM will only have what we, as a community, are willing to pay for. I love this market. I would pay for it with my soul. But know that’s not gonna be enough…

  21. Those are all some good comments and observations, hopefully some of the organizers check this and get some tips. It’s obvious that, just as I do, many people want to see it succeed.

  22. In case people are still consulting this, Tamai Farms returned to the market this past week (March 6), and bring with them a wide variety of produce including broccoli, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, beets, carrots, some other items I’m forgetting, and top-notch Gaviota strawberries.

    Apparently the winter cold has been enough to slow strawberry production significantly (which always drops over the winter anyway), and which is their primary cash crop, making attendance at the market marginally profitable. They plan to be back permanently, so please come and show your support for the market as we try to build up a core group of farmers and shoppers for the Spring and Summer months.

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