Markets new and old bring life to District

Leon Calomiris still remembers first seeing the ruins of his family’s decades-old produce stand at Eastern Market.

“It was devastating,” he said, thinking back on the moments in the aftermath of the fire. “You do something all your life, and suddenly it’s been demolished.”

Walking around Eastern Market today, it’s difficult to tell that just a few years prior, there were worries the building would never reopen. The fire that ripped through the market in the early hours of April 30, 2007, spared little of the structure. Holes littered the roof from where flames managed to punch through, and market vendors came back to find their stands destroyed.

Max Benecke, who has worked at the Bowers Fancy Dairy Products stand for a little over a year, directs visitors to a picture hanging behind the counter of the stand before the fire. When someone asks if any part of the booth survived, he lays his hand on the granite countertop. “For us? Just this.”

Yet the Bowers were lucky — the Calomiris family, among others, had to rebuild their entire stand from scratch.

Today, Eastern Market stands as a vibrant reminder of the community’s dedication to the oldest continuous market in the city. Even now, during what Benecke calls the “slower season,” Capitol Hill locals still wind their way through the market on weekday mornings to shop or grab a bite to eat at Market Lunch, and crowds come during the weekends to visit local artists at outdoor booths. Their tented stands stretch around the building on Saturdays and Sundays and spill out into an adjacent lot across the street, where shoppers can find everything from jewelry and consignment clothing to homemade hummus and fresh apple cider. The North Hall, which doubles as a community center and spot for more weekend vendors, was fitted during reconstruction with a dance floor and new lighting to attract rental use as well.

As renovation on the building began post-fire, a special effort was made to keep the history of the market alive while also adding modern updates.

Builders included windows identical to those lost in the fire, and added heating and air conditioning throughout the market, much to the relief of many vendors.

The city helped to fund the rebuilding process, which topped out at $22 million, and many local officials offered their assistance and support. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty in particular was described as “instrumental” to the effort to reopen, and Calomiris says that Fenty “must have had a soft spot in his heart” for the building and its history.

Calomiris’s family has owned a spot inside South Hall since 1963, and one at Center Market near Gallaudet University before that, and he notes that despite the fire, not much has changed. “I’ve played around here since I was 7 years old, and as I got older, the playing got more serious, and along the way I learned how to help run this with my family.”

As part of the third generation of the Calomiris family to run the grocery, resilience is just another trait that’s been passed down. Despite the devastation of the fire, he says that “Mom was always tough — no matter how things looked, she kept the hope through it, and that helped us along the way.”

Mirroring Eastern Market’s success, other city markets have found new life through rejuvenation. Union Market, home of the old Center Market, reopened just last September after a period of rebuilding. Billed as an “artisanal market,” it contains a renovated indoor hall and a slew of local vendors.

EDENS, a retail development company, spearheaded the Union Market transformation, and managing director Steve Boyle says the hope behind the conversion was to “build and bring together the community through the food experience.”

“At the heart of bringing people together is the dinner table,” Boyles says, and Union’s development focused on giving homage to the history of the site while also “attracting a disparate population of people who embrace food, who care about food, and who are looking for a place to explore.”

EDENS also focused on bringing together “a unique collection of artisans” and vendors for a more community-centered experience, from food and retailer Salt & Sundry to food truck staple D.C. Empanadas.

O Street Market in the Shaw neighborhood is also looking to reopen soon as CityMarket at O, a complex expected to house a Giant supermarket, hotel, and new residences. Despite the different physical outcomes of each of the three market projects, the goals have been the same: to provide a social and retail center that brings the community together.

Even before the fire, Eastern Market was no stranger to the idea of renewal. The city commissioned Adolf Cluss after the Civil War to design buildings across the city, including the market and the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building.

The aim of Eastern Market was to provide a center to draw together the burgeoning Capitol Hill community, and to help the city shed its image of a sleepy Southern town. Dubbed “New Washington,” the project set off a citywide effort to become a place fit to house the nation’s government.

It was that same Capitol Hill community that came together after the fire to show its support for the rebuilding efforts. Calomiris saw people from all walks of life stepping up to assist the reconstruction, including “little kids coming by with their piggy banks, just looking for a way to help.”

For those people on the Hill, Eastern Market is more than just another building — it’s a life center, a place that holds their history. And for vendors like Leon Calomiris, it has been, and always will be, home.