Land Use

This time the city needs to get St. Roch Market right — a lot depends on it

Refurbishing the St. Roch Market, shown here in 2012 , is nearing completion, but what's to be done with the space remains an open question.

Roy Guste

Refurbishing the St. Roch Market, shown here in 2012 , is nearing completion, but what's to be done with the space remains an open question.

Public markets were once a dominant feature of New Orleans’ commercial landscape. There were almost three dozen of them, ranging from those still well-known — the French Market and St. Roch, above all — to long-forgotten markets on Poydras, Washington, Carrollton, Ninth Street, Soraparu, Magazine, Dryades, Claiborne, Treme, St. Bernard, Port, Jefferson, Second Street, Keller, LeBreton, St. John, Ewing, Prytania, Mehle, Memory, Suburban, Rocheblave, Maestri, Delamore, McCue, Lautenschlaeger, Zengel, Guillotte, Doulluth, Behrman and Foto.

Only the French Market and the St. Roch Market are still managed by the city and a proper plan for fully rejuvenating St. Roch seems even more crucial now than in the early post-Katrina days when the neighborhoods on either side of St. Claude identified it as a significant piece of their recovery plan.

Strong neighborhood action was also vital back in the 1930s, when St. Roch was saved the first time, renovated and leased to private operators. But by the turn of the 21st century, that era at St. Roch was grinding to an end with a single lessee using only a small part of a building that by then was quite dilapidated.

This time, the city definitely needs to do better.

To his credit, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has seen the building’s post-Katrina rehab through to completion. But the true test lies ahead: whether Landrieu can achieve full occupancy in ways responsive to the interests of the diverse communities that surround the old market.

A government photo shows the market after its overhaul in 1938.

Works Progress Administration

A government photo shows the market after its overhaul in 1938.

The nonprofit that serves as the city’s leasing agent for this and other properties — the New Orleans Building Corporation — has a 30-year lease to manage the property and is meant to find the “highest and best” use for the space. But what that means to the building corporation and to the neighborhoods may be vastly different. Note that the board of the building corporation is made up entirely of elected officials and mayoral appointees, but operates as a public-benefit corporation rather than under the management of a city agency.  Therefore, one question remaining is whether, without direct management by a city agency, residents can maintain enough pressure to keep this project moving forward.

How can the neighborhoods assist the mayor and City Council in fully reviving St. Roch? Comment on social network sites such as reveals a desire among residents to anchor the St. Roch Market with seafood, or fresh local produce — maybe even a festival-type food experience like Boston’s Haymarket or the Boqueria Market in Barcelona. These scenarios would require that the building corporation find a dozen or more entrepreneurs ready to take stalls, start selling and keep selling.

The building would also require an innovative on-site director to keep it on track. Who will that be? The most obvious candidate would be the new French Market director; he has declared providing fresh local food to be one of his goals, but, as C.W. Cannon has noted on this site, his hands are already quite full.  Maybe St. Roch is where that goal can be achieved.

Here’s the challenge, however: New Orleans is having a hard time supporting all of the weekly farmers markets around town — five at last count, six if you include Gretna.

Of course, open-air farmers markets serve a different purpose than enclosed markets. Across the country, farmers markets have been used over the past 35 years to rebuild connections between consumers and those who grow food, usually small-scale farmers driving in from neighboring parishes and selling alongside urban cottage producers such as praline and bread makers.

Farmers markets have helped to revive heirloom foods — Creole cream cheese anyone? — and to promote seasonality. In partnership with city public health programs, they have been pioneering an increase in healthy food options for low-income residents, previously left out of the “good food” revolution.

It’s important work, but for many farmers the weekly drive to the city is a costly undertaking, as is time away from the farm. With the drive to market averaging an hour each way, to suggest that farmers can set up daily for a full 8-to-10 hours is little more than a lovely dream.

But if a daily farmers market is unlikely at St. Roch, another option that would be both welcome and feasible might be as a seafood outlet. Up front, there could  be a lunch-to-late night counter for seafood platters-to-go, while inside, a seafood distributor could specialize in packaged local seafood — perhaps with a gumbo/pho counter along the back. Leave room for shared space; offer it for use by event planners and educational nonprofits. One night per week might be reserved for white-booted fishermen to set up and sell directly.

An alternative or complement to a full seafood outlet might be artisanal food and drink with room for producers to store and sell their goods directly to the public on a daily basis. The experience could be made interactive by encouraging contests, cook offs and taste testing by shoppers. Recent reports sound a lot like this idea and have neighborhood backing.

Yet another option is to focus the St. Roch Market on showcasing and selling green merchandise and educational materials — from solar systems to water-saving technology to composting gear. Whatever the theme, the important thing among the neighbors seems to be to attract local entrepreneurs, carefully selected and managed to create a coherent marketing experience.

The “white box” St. Roch is ready to accept tenants, while the construction zone snarling traffic at Claiborne and St. Bernard shows that another of the city’s venerable public market buildings, the one now known as Circle Foods, a private enterprise, remains a work in progress. If the adjacent neighborhoods want to build a complete market district, it could begin with St. Roch and, over time, mature and expand to Circle Foods, rejuvenating the St. Bernard Avenue area along the way.

The one thing I’ve noticed in my travels to public markets across the nation is that the survivors among them are good at adapting to changing community needs. The needs of New Orleans neighborhoods have changed since the 1930s. As a matter of fact, the needs expressed by the neighbors in the initial months of the post-Katrina recovery may also have changed again, what with the news that Robert’s is returning to St. Claude and the emergence of the New Orleans Food Coop directly across the street.

New Orleans is a city with a particular reverence for the past, yet we also adapt when necessary. The St. Roch Market project combines both of those in one project. Let’s find the right set of answers and make it work.

A national consultant on food and farming initiatives, Darlene Wolnik has spent the past 15 years also working alongside entrepreneurs in the New Orleans area.

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  • Jenel Hazlett

    PLEASE don’t make this about what the “tourists” need.
    Local markets providing local food is the way of the future.
    As usual New Orleans is so far behind it’s ahead. I have no problem keeping us that way.

  • agreed. I don’t think that any of the neighborhood folks are working to attract tourists in these ideas. They definitely seem to understand that this could be a true public hall that everyone uses regularly for their shopping and meeting.

  • Destiny

    I like the idea of a fresh seafood market…open early, bring the docs closer to the restaurants and to residents. Not that the fishermen necessarily have to man stalls, but somehow make it a distribution point. Hopefully also providing better prices for the average consumer as well. I also like the idea of lunch plates, seafood platters, boiled seafood, gumbos & pho. Possibly team up with Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and do something cooperative.

  • Robbie Vitrano

    Glad you’re weighing in here Darlene.

  • Mary W. Rowe

    Great piece Dar! These kinds of civic assets need to be always evolving and flexible, eh? Too narrowly fixed (by zoning, or funder terms for instance) a use inhibits the space taking on whatever function would be useful locally. Your options sound smart and realistic.

  • Renaissance man Roy Guste, author, photographer, restaurateur (as in the great-great grandson of Antoine’s founder, Antoine Alciatore), wrote me his ideas over the holiday weekend after reading the piece: “I’m waaaay past being a foodie but when I was a child we really did shop at the French Market. And seafood from Battistella’s in the French Market. I think stalls with regular tenants, and stalls where the tenant can change day to day… might be the answer. The farmers trucks all backed up and unloaded right onto the market floor. It was fun to walk through. A meat stall… doesn’t have to be the same seller or the same product everyday. The same with each other comestible. Residents will come to know the schedule…. veal on Wednesday, lamb on Thursday, etc. Shrimp and white trout, catfish and Redfish. Again… let the fisherman come in by the group daily. Crayfish season coming up…. have them boiled and raw and tail meat by the pound…FRESH AND WITH THE FAT!!! I would love to shop there. But you have to be BETTER than Roberts. If you want longterm tenants. Low income families and individuals must be ABLE to shop there…. fair prices. You cannot sell a pound of Grouper for more than Rouse. And keep the place SPOTLESS and fresh. Take out prepared and frozen should be available. But I don’t see how ‘Pho’ should be any part of this plan. A good fried oyster poor-boy would be better.”

  • Jim Bremer

    I propose a collaberative, inclusive effort with deep interest in small gardeners and food producers organized to maximize and streamline liability insurance, permitting and public policy issues. David Aman tried for years to institute an incubating kitchen in the area.

  • downtown messenger

    Little mention of the desire for affordability, this article reads like the community wants another co-op.

  • True affordability is key you are right. With space considerations, i focused on the entrepreneurial piece of this puzzle, but as I mentioned in the farmers market piece of it, there should not be a lock on this having only gourmet goods. god no. but again, how that can be done is quite difficult, especially when this will be competing with the reopened Robert’s sooner or later. I believe in more cooperatives, and do think the St. Roch can benefit from that organizing principle, but I mean worker-owned cooperatives that expand ownership and therefore will expand access to more affordable goods. New Orleans has many cooperative endeavors (and we must be honest, the Food Co-op is only one particular example of a marketing cooperative and one that has not captured the affordability flag!) and so its important to remember that there are successful grassroots versions that focus on reducing the costs of production and therefore in offering goods and services.

  • Low income families and individuals must be ABLE to shop there…. fair prices.

    Here is the problem. The Low Income families are so bottom of the barrel in responsibility, time management, and financial decision making, they can’t afford anything without EBT, SNAP or WIC.

    The NOLA culture wants it both ways.

    Party, party, party, via Second Lines. And just in case you didn’t know, these Second Lines are nothing more than bar hopping with a permit and public intoxication. But wait, it’s those costumes and ‘culcha’. And these costumes cost a lot of time and money, but the parade and it’s entertainment is thrown for free to the public.

    So the question is, Are all those Second Lines and all those costumes’ time and money and 24/7 public intoxication AFFORDABLE for the POOR?

    All that money and time going into plastic beads, that are only going to be stored in the closet anyway and costumes (again, only going to be stored in the closet after the parade) takes away from the cash (if these poor actually can remain sober to hold a job) that could be used to PAY FOR FOOD. The same can be said for Mardi Gras and the festivals every month.

    Are going to all those parties and festivals “affordable” by the poor, or even those who complain about affordable housing and no co-op’s? The NOLA culture wants it both ways, (a) party day and night, (b) affordable housing and food, and (c) get paid good wages for not even showing up to work on time? Dream on.

    With regards to NOLA Culture, to make food affordable to the poor is like trying to make food affordable to the irresponsible.

    Twitter Handle: AhContraire

  • But you have to be BETTER than Roberts…..You cannot sell a pound of Grouper for more than Rouse.

    And how would these tenants in St. Roch Market pay for the employees and food to be “better” than Roberts, Rouses or even Whole Foods when you can’t even sell food or seafood for more than Roberts, Rouses or Whole Foods?

    Seems like this renaissance man also wants it both ways.

  • nickelndime

    First let me say that I have not seen Mitch Landrieu do anything right yet and his paw prints are all over this one. Right up the street on St. Claude Ave., there is a Family Dollar store with trash flowing out into the parking lot. The fence is falling down, and it has been the scene of at least one armed robbery. The area is filthy, and the parking would be where? Back up the street, there have been numerous shootouts and murders. There are some night spots in the area where young people seem to be drinking between bars on pleasant evenings. Maybe they work at the KIPP school up the street and are spending their money on liquor. I know if I worked there, I would be drinking too. Somebody, please hand me some rose-colored glasses so I can see what the rest of you are seeing, and I would like to drink what everybody else is having. Does anybody know what part of the city is being discussed? St. Roch Seafood Market was there years ago, and further back, there were live chickens cramped into small flat cages. Now, somebody tells me they want to see maybe lobsters sitting in water with their claws taped. Please stop.

  • Budd

    Maybe you feel that Landrieu has paw prints here but FYI I know for a fact that this renovation has been being talked about and worked on since the Nagin times. And the current result is not really that far removed from where the discussion started.

    Perhaps you are lamenting more than whoever is the current mayor can be responsible for. I know I am.

  • nickelndime

    Paw prints, hooves, what’s the difference? The corruption in this city did not start with Nagin and it won’t end with Mitch. There are paw prints, hoof prints, and a whole bunch of political human handprints all over this project. And why in the hell has this renovation taken so long to come to fruition? I’ll tell you RAT now! Bottom line – corruption.

  • Greg Sonnier

    One thing is for sure, unless City Hall is completely removed from the actual operation of the St. Roch market; I see no hope for it flourishing. It will become another NOLA political patronage machine.
    I really haven`t seen any ending in the old way of doing business here? It is still the “Lord of the Flies” mentallity down there. .

  • and look at this: it looks like Circle Foods is going to open its doors well before St. Roch does. Little surprise to me that a privately owned storefront can get its act together before a city-owned building can decide on its tenants or even its plan for tenants… The lack of movement has to be a disappointment for St. Roch advocates but what seems to be the imminent Circle Foods reopening is certainly great news for the 7th ward and all downtown residents.

  • ChefLindaGreen1

    Gumbo & Pho come on not knocking pho but what about our New Orleans Traditional well best kept secret YAKAMEIN

  • nickelndime

    What IS going on with the St. Roch Market? I agree with Greg Sonnier, with the city of New Orleans calling the shots, it is The Lord of the Flies revisited – over and over and all over again, until the public loses interest or something else opens up the block. Hello Robert’ grocer! Not sure that YAKAMEIN is one of New Orleans’ best kept secrets, though. Contrary to the stereotype that many non-YAKAMEIN hold, there are some major ethical and cultural issues that make the piranha look like a game fish. LOL