In Detroit, changes to a historic market raise questions around equity and development.
By Nina Misuraca Ignaczak
Photos by Nick Hagen
We’d rise early, before the summer humidity pressed down on the city, and drive the wide lanes from our eastside suburb—past crumbling buildings and churches on Gratiot Avenue, morning air blowing through my hair in the backseat of my dad’s Cutlass, Billy Joel on the radio—into the core of Detroit. Snagging a spot behind the meat processors, we’d make our way to the sheds, picking a path through trucks and pallets, past the nauseating aroma of discarded, rotten cabbages and mounds of trash, to haggle with produce vendors and fill up a red metal wagon with watermelons and blueberries and flowers.
These memories of Saturday morning trips to Detroit’s Eastern Market in the early 1980s are the most vivid and treasured of my childhood. On those mornings I learned something about my father, his childhood as a grocer’s son, and how our Sicilian immigrant ancestors made their way in a new country as produce peddlers and butchers in this market, nearly a century before I was born. It was my personal introduction to authenticity, about what, for my family at least, makes a place real and gritty and meaningful.
Thirty-five years later, Detroit’s Eastern Market is much changed from what it was. Trash and rotten produce no longer festoon the streets. The sheds are refurbished, and the bathrooms are clean. Family farmers, processors, and distributors with decades, even a century of history peddle their wares alongside new urban farmers. An expensive juice bar, an artisanal distillery, and a wellness studio are recent additions to the business mix. Trendy eateries have moved in alongside stalwarts like the 136-year old Roma Cafe. An Urban Pet Shoppe “brings trendy, stylish and quality merchandise to the pets and people of Detroit,” and features a Shinola dog journal for $18. On a summer afternoon, a yoga class takes place alongside the meat processors and produce distributors that have operated here since the market was established, in 1891.
The Saturday crowd has changed, too. Long a magnet for suburbanites and city-dwellers alike, Eastern Market now draws crowds from much farther afield; people travel here from Toledo, Ann Arbor, and beyond to visit what has become a regional cultural attraction. Day- and weekend-trippers come less for the produce and more for the ambiance. They want to experience a historic, urban farmers’ market in a city where fortunes were created and municipal bankruptcy filed within the space of a century.
They’ve come in search of something “authentic.” But authenticity is a slippery word. Who gets to define it for a place like Eastern Market? That’s something city market leadership, business owners, the community, and, increasingly, wealthy real estate developers are trying to figure out.
The changes began more than a decade ago, in 2006, when the nonprofit Eastern Market Corporation (now Eastern Market Partnership) assumed operation of the market from the City of Detroit, just as the city was descending into what would become the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Under the leadership of Executive Director Dan Carmody, the organization cleaned up the market, expanded hours, diversified the vendor base, invested in infrastructure improvements, upgraded sheds, and built a community incubator kitchen and an event space.
Eventually, real estate values surrounding the market responded. Developers started buying up land and buildings, many of which are more than a century old and need massive upgrades. Rents rose. Artists left. And now, long-time businesses owners are cashing out—or being pushed out.
This spring, news of the shuttering of two beloved eateries in the district dominated Detroit headlines. Both businesses were located in buildings acquired by thirty-year-old developer Sanford Nelson, whose name has become something of a curse word in certain circles. Young Nelson, backed by his millionaire serial entrepreneur father, Linden Nelson, has assembled a portfolio of buildings encompassing more than two hundred and fifty thousand square feet in the past several years, and has set about increasing rents.
In March, Farmer’s Restaurant, which had operated in the market for decades, announced it would close after Nelson purchased the building. The closure was touted as a long-awaited and much-deserved retirement for its owners, who owned the building. More controversial was the April announcement of the closure of the Russell Street Deli, a soup-and-sandwich mainstay that does a brisk lunchtime business. A dispute between the restaurant’s owners and Nelson, over repairs and rent, went public. Locals were hopeful, for a short time, that Carmody would step in and broker a deal.
But on May 2, deli owner Ben Hall posted an emotional manifesto on Facebook lamenting Sanford’s actions and confirming the restaurant’s plans to find another space in a different neighborhood. A disparaging meme circulated, showing Sanford as the kingpin of a line of chain restaurants along a row of Eastern Market’s historic buildings, and an artist wrapped the buildings in police tape proclaiming “gentrification in progress.”
In July, Nelson’ real estate firm announced it would demolish another of its buildings on Russell Street. Later that month, the city’s Historic Designation Advisory Board began looking into establishing the market as an official historic district, which could eventually place hurdles before the wrecking balls—but likely not anytime soon.
The controversy has become yet another touchpoint in an ongoing conversation about gentrification in Detroit. To some Metro Detroiters, who witnessed decades of decline in a city that saw essentially no major development for fifty years (save some controversial casinos in the early 2000s), the idea of gentrification seemed laughable—an abstraction, something that happened in other cities. But suddenly, it was happening here. In real time. To their favorite lunch spot.
In 2016, Eastern Market Corporation released a 2025 vision, outlining plans to pursue expansion of its footprint while building new food processing infrastructure. The first goal of the plan is “authenticity,” defined as “keep it a real, food-focused economy.” There are two choices, says Carmody. Either the market intentionally embraces authentic development, or it turns into a sort of Disneyland parody of itself. “If we just let market forces have their way, we’ll end up like every other local food district in the United States that’s been turned into a really cool urban neighborhood without a core of working food businesses…The food market in Chicago, the meatpacking district in New York, they used to be a lot like Eastern Market. Now they’re not. Now they’re white tablecloth restaurants and high-end condos and boutiques and bars.”
For the past three years, Carmody’s organization has made it a top priority to retain the market’s food processors and distributors by taking advantage of what he says is Eastern Market’s key advantage over those other historic food districts: relatively cheap land. “Detroit has disintegrated around the market over the last fifty years, so we’re surrounded by a lot of vacant land,” he says. “It’s a completely unique opportunity. Eastern Market has a chance to perpetuate itself for the next two hundred and fifty years.”
A lack of adequate space in the market proper had already cost it two of its legacy distributors, Butcher and Packer Co., and Maceri Produce, who both left for facilities in the suburbs. By helping processors and distributors find places for expansion within the district, Carmody says the Eastern Market Partnership is helping to maintain the economic benefits of clustering food-related businesses in one location, while retaining or creating three or four hundred good jobs for city residents who might otherwise be lost to the suburbs.
Not everyone is in favor of expanding food processing operations into the nearby area. In February, the Wolverine Packing Co. opened a new facility in what Carmody describes as the “expansion area” and a local business magazine called a “reclaimed residential neighborhood.” The company purchased the vacant land, referred to as “Forest Park”, from the city, leveraging $2.13 million in state tax incentives through Michigan’s brownfield program, which allows public funds to be used for certain greenfield properties that qualify as “blighted.”
But, as often happens in mostly-vacant areas of Detroit slated for new development, people still live there. Forest Park resident Sarah Burger is one of them. “[The city] sold like half the park, and gave a bunch of tax breaks to Wolverine,” she says. “And now you’ve got a meat packing plant next to where kids are playing, and it’s just weird.”
Wolverine retained four acres of the land for park space, and plans to renovate or construct recreational facilities there. But these concessions, says Burger, aren’t what the neighborhood residents want. They’d like to see more parks and greenways, but also more housing and commercial development instead of industrial facilities. Burger attended input sessions hosted by Eastern Market and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation earlier this year, and says she felt the agenda for city-owned, vacant land in the neighborhood had already been decided.
“It did seem like they sort of had their own plan that they were going to carry out regardless, which was to have more things [like the Wolverine plant],” she says. “This area is so important just by its proximity to downtown and Eastern Market. So what happens with it is very important, and it’s hopefully well-thought out, and thought out with putting residents first.”
This tension around defining authenticity for the area—and how to redevelop neighborhoods while retaining food business—will continue to evolve as the market navigates the future.
Jason Grobbel, President of E.W. Grobbel Sons, Inc., which bills itself as “America’s oldest corned beef specialists,” is one of the long-time processors who wants to remain in the city. Grobbel’s family has been processing corned beef in Detroit since before Eastern Market existed. The company moved into the market in 1925 and has been there ever since. It is the sole supplier of corned beef to Walmart, and completed an on-site expansion with a new state-of-the-art processing facility in 2017. “We love employing Detroiters,” says Grobbel. “We want to show how Detroit can become a mecca for manufacturing and food processing.”
Grobbel believes the potential for food manufacturing in Detroit is not unlike that of automotive manufacturing here a century ago, with the potential to lift up those people with little education into higher wage tiers. “Henry Ford invented the way the car was made to adapt to workers that came off the farm, and they were productive nearly on day one,” he says. “They didn’t require a massive amount of education to do it. We’ve lost the ability in our processing to do this; we just gave up and allowed jobs to be shipped out of the area, and in many cases overseas. That can be reversed.”
Keeping the focus of the local economy on food is, for Carmody, the beginning and end of the conversation about Eastern Market’s authenticity. It’s not about preserving historic buildings, though that’s important. What’s more important, he says, is preserving the market’s status as a working food district. “In addition to foodies and people coming to our Saturday market, we also have thirteen hundred people working here, making corned beef or burger patties or distributing fruits and vegetables,” he says. “It’s great to think about walkable urban places, but it’s also important to defend pallets and trucks.”
The Eastern Market Partnership doesn’t actually wield regulatory authority, so its influence can only go so far. “There’s no one who’s really in charge of this place as a neighborhood,” says Russell Street’s Hall. “So as a consequence, if you see someone who comes in with thirty million dollars, I guess we’ll see in ten or twenty years [what happens].”
In the wake of the Russell Street Deli controversy, the Eastern Market Partnership announced several initiatives designed to take a stronger hand in guiding development. One announcement was the name change, from “Eastern Market Corporation” to “Eastern Market Partnership,” acknowledging the 2016 establishment of a nonprofit subsidiary development corporation, which so far has acquired about twelve acres over ninety parcels. The corporation’s goals, according to Carmody, include assisting longtime businesses like Hall’s that face sudden rent increases, providing affordable space for artists, and maintaining a diverse tenant mix around the market to serve both Saturday visitors and locals. Keeping space affordable, between seven and eleven dollars per square foot, is key to these efforts.
Also included in the announcement was a set of “Real Estate Development Protocols” that developers will have to follow to obtain the support of the Eastern Market Partnership. The criteria address both mixed-use commercial and food business development. They call for preservation and succession planning for legacy businesses, affordable housing, a focus on food-related businesses, and a limitation on formula businesses, among other items. Carmody says the criteria are designed to formalize the organization’s core values, providing the basis for a scoring system for proposed projects and ultimately for measuring success.
Carmody thinks the criteria will make a difference. “We don’t have dictatorial power. We’re simply a cheerleader for the neighborhood,” he says. “But when developers, as they inevitably do, go to the city or a state public agency for help for regulatory approvals or incentives, typically the question goes to ‘what do the locals think?’ and we do have some influence there.”
Nelson’s publicist declined a request for an interview for this piece, but responded to an inquiry for comment on the development protocols with the following statement: “We think Eastern Market did an amazing job on their new plan to help the area grow and thrive—especially their effort to bring everyone together to support the beautification, security, sustainability, and development of the neighborhood. We’re fully on board.”
Whether or not any of these criteria will ever gain the force of law will depend on the willingness of the City of Detroit’s planning department to take up the mantle. It’s a difficult path, according to Michael Berne, a retail development consultant who consults nationally. “Authenticity is a very subjective thing,” he says. “Certainly, when you’re talking about codifying something in city policy or code such that it can also stand up to legal scrutiny, the subjectivity of it becomes a real problem.”
The cities of San Francisco and San Diego, Berne mentions, have taken a different approach by establishing legacy business registry programs that offer grants and technical tools for qualifying businesses. In San Francisco, 175 businesses have joined the registry since it launched the program in 2016. Among other tactics, the city pays landlords a fee for offering stable rental agreements to registered businesses.
For long-time Detroit resident and Eastern Market patron Noah Stephens, some regulatory oversight at this point is warranted. He would like to see a citizens’ advisory board in place to make the hard decisions about what constitutes authenticity in Eastern Market.“In most places, a property owner should be able to do whatever they see fit. In places with profound historic and social significance, there should be some preservation oversight,” he told me. “If homeowners in [Detroit’s historic district] Indian Village can’t install an anachronistic sconce, property owners in Eastern Market should not be able to install a Subway.”
Sometimes, development plans that call for authenticity can mean less attention to issues of inclusion and equity. “I think there’s a lot of hesitation or reluctance to deal with some of these tensions,” Berne told me. He pointed to a recent experience with the East Colfax Avenue Corridor, in Denver, where he says plans focused on creating a “Complete Streets” experience will make it difficult for the corridor to retain much of the business that currently services lower-income populations.
“The way they are proposing to redesign the street will basically spell the end to a lot of the strip retailers currently there,” he explained. “But just remember that all of those chains in set back buildings with parking in front, whether it’s a Dollar Tree or an Arby’s or Autozone, that’s the stuff where the lower-income population is shopping. And in the process of making this a walkable, bikeable street and getting rid of all of the horrible, automobile-oriented stuff, you’re also compromising the inclusivity of the corridor.”
Carmody says that authenticity and equity are inextricably linked. The second goal in Eastern Market’s 2025 plan is “development equity” defined as “enhanc[ing] the market as a place of genuine economic democracy.” Part of that vision, according to Carmody, is to make sure the district is welcoming for all, which means establishing housing and amenities that will attract and serve people with low to moderate incomes.
“One of the real wake-up calls we had in our planning process was engaging with residents from the Forest Park neighborhood to the north of the market,” he says. (The median income in Forest Park is $11,800.) “We went out of our way to try to figure out how to engage them in the planning process. We simply asked them, ‘Why don’t you come to the market? Why don’t you use the market more often?’ and their response was, ‘You don’t have what we want.'”
Katrina Watkins is a forty-plus-year resident of Forest Park. While she sees the changes in Eastern Market as mainly positive, she’d like to see a grocery store and more recreational amenities with free or low-cost options for neighborhood youth and seniors. “I’m really concerned about the businesses that have been there that could get displaced, something that has happened already,” she says. “And especially people who live in neighborhoods. When the rents go up people who have been there can’t afford to be there anymore and they get kind of get pushed out.”
She’d like to see the city take direct action to preserve affordability through rent control. “I know people want to make a profit, and I’m not sure what that would look like or how you can actually control it,” she says. “You have to balance the needs of the people who are in the community so that they have a voice, and they feel like they’re not being pushed out.”
Over time, says Carmody, the subsidiary development corporation will work to carve out a quarter of retail space in the district to be held below market prices to accommodate businesses that are aimed at low- and moderate-income residents. “We want a group of advisors that can bring expertise in real estate development to allow us to implement those strategies, so that in the next ten years we can grow the district… to be as economically inclusive as possible,” says Carmody.
But, he added, “We believe that everybody deserves the best possible market that they can have. We’re not going to be held hostage if people think the market’s too nice for them. We need to shift their opinion, not make it a less nice market. That, to me, is how authenticity will be achieved.” ■
Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a freelance multimedia storyteller. She edits the Planet Detroit Newsletter and Metromode, writes for various news outlets and produces short documentary films. Her passion is getting to the heart of the story and making that story engaging and moving for others. Read, view and listen to her work at ninaignaczak.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ninaignaczak.
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