Change for 100?

Other cities' public markets have become tourist attractions. But in the West Side Market's centennial year, we should celebrate and preserve its authenticity.
If you like flying fish, fresh-cut flowers or photographing your kids sitting atop a brass pig, then Seattle's famed Pike Place Market is for you. The city's top tourist attraction, Pike Place draws 10 million visitors per year, ahead of even the Space Needle.

When I lived in Seattle, I took out-of-town guests to watch the fishmongers hurl their fillets across the concourse to be packaged with dry ice for a plane trip home. When I return to see my grandchildren now, I try to get a table with a view of Elliott Bay at the Athenian Inn, made famous by Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner in Sleepless in Seattle.

But is this what Cleveland wants from our West Side Market? Sure, the out-of-town traffic (and dollars) would be welcome, but not at the expense of what we have now — a market that still reflects the Old World, pre-Giant Eagle ways of eating that immigrants brought to the city and a collection of generations-old family businesses that epitomizes Cleveland's identity as a deep-rooted city, not a city of transplants.

As the market's centennial year begins, there is a lot of chatter about change. A commission named by Mayor Frank Jackson has proposed several new plans for the market, from repairs to better marketing and promotion to a new visitors center. A survey of customers revealed that many would like more locally grown products and for the market to be open more than four days a week, including on Sundays.

But talk of change makes many vendors nervous. We need to remember that the market is much more than meat and potatoes, sausage and sauerkraut. It is a melting pot for stories that define Cleveland.

Jeremiah Wiencek got to know the market as a kid, playing while his mother worked at her uncle's stand. Now, at 32, Jeremiah runs Wiencek's Meats and Wiencek's Poultry. He's the fourth generation of his family to work there.

Sopheap Heng came to America from Cambodia with no money, but a will to work until she earned enough to open her own booth, Kim Se Cambodian Cuisine, in 2005. She met and married a frequent customer, Charles Barrett, a Cleveland native and financial analyst who now helps her with "the headache side" of the business.

Renee Zaucha went with her mother to the market as a toddler. Five years ago, she bought Rita's, a stand that specializes in olives, fresh sauerkraut and all things oily. Her daughters work there with her.

Vince Bertonaschi moved from the now-defunct Central Market to the West Side a quarter of a century ago to open Vince's Meats. The Thursday before Christmas, a closed day for the market, he spent 17 hours preparing for the weekend rush.

These are working-class folks who had the courage to begin their own businesses. Zaucha's sauerkraut comes right from the barrel. Heng cooks her Cambodian delights fresh each morning. Bertonaschi and Wiencek hand-cut their meat themselves.

"You don't get that at the supermarket anymore," Bertonaschi says. "You know my meat is fresh. And there are 11 other vendors who sell beef here. I have to be good to compete."

Bertonaschi, head of the Market's Vendors Association, fears that many merchants and restaurant owners near the market want to increase foot traffic by "turning us into a tourist trap." Tourists don't shop for groceries, he says. "We want this to be a real market. That is what makes us special, makes Cleveland special."

The West Side Market is much more of a food market than Pike Place. The Seattle market's website lists six meat and poultry vendors. West Side Market has more than two dozen. We also have at least twice as many fresh produce vendors.

Pike Place caters to tourists, who eat at restaurants and buy flowers. Lots of flowers. The north end of Pike Place bursts with color; with more than 35 flower and plant stands on-site, it's like taking a stroll through the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz. There are even more craft shops in the 9-acre Seattle complex and at least 60 restaurants and takeout stands in the market or on adjacent streets.

Not that you can't do some fine grocery shopping at Pike Place.

"A lot of local chefs shop there," said Andrew Schneider, a food journalist who lives in Seattle. "It's a great place for more exotic greens • fresh seafood • items like porcini mushrooms that you don't find in your neighborhood markets."

When I told him about the choices of food vendors at our market, though, he had only a one-word response: "Wow."

The vendors provide that "wow" factor.

Another difference: Pike Place Market is open 362 days a year; the West Side Market is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Ask those vendors to work even more hours, and you risk losing what makes the market special.

"I'd have to sell packaged meats," Bertonaschi says.

Adds Zaucha: "Those off days are spent preparing. If I have to be open on Sundays, I will have to hire more help, • and I will have to raise my prices."

Not all the vendors agree about opening on Sunday. "Many of the produce people think Sundays might be good for them," says Barrett, who has attended vendors meetings with his wife.

Amanda Dempsey, market district director for Ohio City Inc., the neighborhood's development organization, assures me that the vendors have nothing to fear.

"We in no way want to change the authentic character of the market," she says, emphasizing that this will be a year to "celebrate the history, tradition and importance of the market," not to revamp it. She says the changes her organization is working on include mostly a capital improvement campaign to raise funds for repairs and for more parking. That should please the motorists who were stranded in gridlock the Friday before Christmas.

"Give us more parking; we need that," Bertonaschi says. "And fix the plumbing. But don't change us. Leave us alone. That's what Cleveland needs to make sure the market is here for another 100 years."

Share this story: