On a Saturday morning, standing at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore Avenue with a juicy, fresh, and local peach in hand, I watch the Clark Park Farmers’ Market spreading out before me. It feels like a million degrees outside, but that hasn’t stopped the eager shoppers from coming out. The market is thrumming with activity, a lively mixture of produce, flowers, hipped-out tattooed West Philly residents, babies, farmers, more babies, and people lined up for the delicious breakfast tacos from Honest Tom’s Taco Truck.
Clark Park serves as a nucleus of University City, a neighborhood in West Philadelphia that encompasses various universities, hospitals, and residential pockets. The area has seen its fair share of challenges and changes in past decades. Once a prosperous street car suburb in the mid 1800s, many communities were ripped apart in the wake of University of Pennsylvania’s expansion in the mid 20th century, and suffered from subsequent crime and disinvestment. Due in no small part to Penn’s more recent commitment to stabilize the community, the area has flourished again, and today it is a place of contrasts. Graceful Victorian homes with flowering front yards merge into blocks of vacant, shuttered homes; the homeless and the Penn professors share a zip code; immigrants and graduate students patronize the same coffee shops.
In 1998, when The Food Trust started running the farmers’ market in conjunction with the University City District, Clark Park was not a place where people felt particularly comfortable. It was dangerous, filled with drug users and dealers, and it wasn’t well cared for. A passerby wouldn’t know that today. In addition to the market, there are drum circles, well-used basketball courts, regular Live Action Role Play battles, and summer Shakespeare performances. Shops have popped up along the adjacent Baltimore Avenue, the main artery running through the neighborhood. When the farmers’ market first opened, it was unusual for a park to host a market, but the community took to it immediately, especially since the neighborhood had historically been underserved in the fresh food domain. The market, which runs for a frenetic few hours every Saturday and a calmer few hours every Thursday, brings in approximately 1,200 visitors on the weekend and 800-1,000 visitors during the week. Sixteen vendors travel anywhere from 1.1 to 180 miles to get to Clark Park, and bring a delicious assortment of goodies with them.
Farmers’ markets often get a bad reputation for only serving expensive produce to upper middle class whites; the typical criticism is “sure, farmers’ markets are great if you can afford to spend ten dollars on swiss chard and a misshapen heirloom tomato.” However, in Clark Park and in many markets that are purposefully located in low-income communities throughout Philadelphia, I see something completely different. Reflecting the neighborhood’s diversity, the market brings out shoppers from across the racial, economic, political (and fashion) spectrum. I can’t think of another place in Philadelphia where a traditionally dressed West African woman will chat with a traditionally dressed Amish farmer, discussing the pros and cons of the eggplants, the squash, or the fresh goats’ milk.
The Food Trust, like many market managers across the country, works to ensure that the fresh produce is affordable to those who need it most. Through the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, markets can now accept WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and SNAP (the new name for food stamps) benefits. Following in the footsteps of other cities, Philadelphia is currently piloting an incentive program that aims to address the issue of farmers’ market affordability while encouraging low-income shoppers to purchase more of the healthy stuff. For every $5 of SNAP benefits that a shopper spends at a farmers’ market, they receive $2 in ‘Philly Food Bucks’ in return, a coupon that can be used to purchase fruits and vegetables at other markets throughout the city.
While working the EBT machine one Thursday, I chatted with an African-American woman, a regular shopper who lives a few blocks away from Clark Park. She prefers coming on Thursdays when it’s not as busy, and she has more time to interact with the farmers and learn exactly where her food comes from. “My daughters, they love the peaches,” she tells me while nodding in the direction of the famous Fahnestock stand, where the peaches are simply and beautifully displayed across several tables. “They can’t wait til the peaches come, and I let them eat as many as they want.” My public health heart swells upon hearing this. Her girls are screaming for…peaches? Not McDonalds!? I am equally interested in hearing how the market impacts her community. According to her, the market is about intermingling and camaraderie. Her sentiments are shared by others from the neighborhood; a Friends of Clark Park member tells me that the market has become the watering hole of the neighborhood, a hub of activity that everyone comes to check out.
It seems that this farmers’ market is all about community development, in the most literal sense, for it provides a forum for neighbors to connect, interact, share food, coo over each others’ children and build a sense of community. In my slightly touchy-feely public health program, we talk about social cohesion and social capital. This is the idea that knowing your neighbors is good for your health, in a variety of (potentially convoluted) ways. Spending a few hours here at the market is an exercise in social cohesion, and I can’t help but believe that these interactions between customers, vendors and onlookers can only be for the best. Given the local concerns over gentrification that have accompanied the rising housing prices and appearance of cute shops in the area (and maybe even the existence of the market itself), it seems all the more critical to have an event that brings the disparate pieces of the neighborhood together.
“Every neighborhood should have a Clark Park,” said one long-time market manager from The Food Trust. He believes that the market is a success due to the enthusiasm of the local residents and the way the public space is shared by all members of the community. He describes how various community organizations that make use of Clark Park come together to navigate the management of this local asset, and I can see how those involved with the market have been added to the list of individuals who are tied to the location and concerned with its well-being. The farmers’ market has become another piece in the very lovely Clark Park puzzle. Since it is a piece that allows me and hundreds of others to buy peaches, apples, multi-grain bread, and cheese among other groceries, I am quite partial to it.
Photos by Alissa Weiss
Alissa Weiss comes from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is currently a student at the Harvard School of Public Health, but she also gets to sneak in a fair amount of urban planning classes too.