Mexico City’s neighborhood markets, the rowdy, smelly vibrant landmarks of concrete and corrugated tin that sell everything from cactus salads to pinatas, are struggling as more Mexicans migrate to the relatively more orderly, cleaner, air-conditioned and foreign-owned supermarkets.
Once a staple of this megacity’s daily life, the markets sold 80 percent of the city’s groceries in the 1950s and ’60s compared to 30 percent now, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development. A 2002 study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico estimated that sales had declined nearly 60 percent over a decade. Nearly 10 years later, university professor Gerardo Torres Salcido says sales have surely dropped even further.
This is the report of Manuel Valdes in the San Francisco Chronicle (and also the Examiner).
Yes, in many ways this is sad. Mexican markets are wonderful places, full of life and color. And the covered markets have often been the source of great civic pride and investment. This superb market in Guanajuato was built to celebrate a hundred years of Mexican independence. Built by the French Brunel engineering company, it’s a wonderful two story cast iron and glass structure.
The one in Coyoacán, Mexico City, was built by the Spanish-Mexican archict, Félix Candela in the 1950s, one of his continuing series of experiments in the use of hyperboic parabaloids.
The great epoch of covered markets was from the 1880s to the 1930s, a response to the massive growth of cities around the world. Mexican markets are just part of a world wide movement. I’ve been to markets with similar layouts and often built by the same firms in Melbourne, Barcelona, London, Belo Horizonte. They were an attempt to introduce order and sanitation to the chaotic provisioning of these cities. At the time of their building they were models of cleanliness and order.
Sad to say that is often not the case in Mexico any more. The lovely Mercado Hidalgo is a fire hazard with wiring to make your hair stand on end (perhaps too literally), inadequate plumbing, and in need of a very, very thorough clean. Mechants and the city have been fighting over this for years, the merchants fearful that they will lose business if the market closes for several months for renovation. Meanwhile they are losing business anyway.
I think there is bound to be a shakeup with some of these markets going out of business. It’s just too convenient to do a one-stop shop at Comercial Mexicana or Walmart. Those are to contemporary retailing what the covered markets were to retailing a hundred years ago.
I also think there is a niche for the better of these markets. Just think of the success of the markets in Barcelona or the upgrading of the markets in London, huge draws for tourists and locals.
To compete the Mexican markets must continue to offer a better, wider, fresher selection of meats, fruits, vegetables, beans, and traditional specialities such as tortillas, chicharron, mole pastes and candied fruits, their strong points. They must continue to offer quick meals far superior to those in the supermarkets. They must try to provide parking and taxi ranks. They must upgrade to contemporary sanitation levels (or at least get back to the sanitation levels of earlier periods). They must continue to offer the fun of the unexpected discovery and the personal encounters. And the city fathers, stretched thin, must be persuaded that they are part of the golden goose of tourism.
It seems time for a wake-up call. What is needed is a re-think, a concerted effort to concentrate on their strengths so that they remain real draws for customers.
Oh, and by the way, in case anyone is confused, these are NOT farmers’ markets in the American sense. Farmers do not bring their own fresh produce to the market. Most comes from the big wholesale markets. If independent vendors sell outside, they are still rarely the producers, but usually poor people hired by producers.