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Remaking the Market

How resident fireball Kathy Emerson is pushing the 17th Street Farmers' Market into the 21st century.


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The 17th Street Farmer's Market was once the center of Richmond's universe. Goods were hauled up river and from the western wilderness. Shallow boats docked along Shockoe Creek, near present-day 17th Street. Outlying villages were forbidden to hold markets on designated days when the Richmond mart was cranking.

If the sight of women spreading wash to dry on the creek's rocky banks was picturesque, the plight of slaves on the auction block was wrenching. Common criminals were placed on humiliating public display in a skeletal, towerlike structure called "The Cage." It may have been the 18th century, but the scene was medieval Hieronymus Bosch.

Even as Richmond developed westward, 17th Street Market continued its hustle until the mid-20th century. Fueled by subsequent influxes of ethnic groups, Germans, Jews and blacks, Shockoe Bottom was Richmond's Ellis Island and the city-owned market was its shopping center.

"There were still three fish markets in the area, and produce farmers pulled up daily with their trucks when I first moved near here," says Ann Gray, a Richmond artist and gallery owner who has lived on Church Hill since the early '60s.

But the handsome old market building was torn down, and after World War II, air-conditioning, grocery chains and foreign-grown produce changed the retail equation. Periodic flooding and unavailable insurance deterred investment in the Bottom. Customers dwindled.

But build a flood wall and they will come. After 1994, Shockoe Bottom became a mecca for investors and developers who found ancient buildings awaiting renewal. Suddenly, one could rent a $1,200-a-month apartment, order the best Merlot or rock the night away — even Amtrak is promised. But at the 17th Street Market you couldn't necessarily find a Hanover tomato on July 4 or a Virginia cedar at Christmas. The market — the birthplace and sentimental heart of Richmond commerce — hadn't kept pace with the activity swirling about it.

"It has been a market since the 18th century and has a unique sense of place about it," says Calder Loth, a prominent Virginia architectural historian and the co-author of a new book, "Lost Virginia." "You can't treat this as an ordinary piece of real estate, because it isn't an ordinary piece of real estate. Realizing all that is going on in the area, it's more important than ever to maintain the traditional uses of the space."

Enter Kathy Emerson, a jewelry artist and a redheaded firebrand whom the city hired almost four years ago to turn things around. Since then, she's been on the job almost 24/7, introducing programs and sales approaches that meld tradition with the desires and patterns of the new downtown.

At the Main Street Grill, a popular hangout at 17th and Main, regulars call her "Hurricane Kathy." Says one patron: "When she comes in, the air moves."

In this case, energy is equity because Emerson's budget is modest. While officials and money people in other quarters talk in terms of tens of millions to turn things around downtown with cultural, hotel and convention venues, the market receives $150,000 from the city and relies on other sources of income such as corporate sponsors and vendor and parking fees. The budget calls for the annual $150,000 appropriation to be matched.

Corporate sponsorships of special events, fees from a market parking lot, vendor stall fees and even an ATM, contribute to the match.

Emerson cites James Ukrop, the grocer and civic leader, as being especially helpful. "I didn't know him when I took this job, but called him out-of-the-blue and asked for his ideas. He's been great." Other individuals and companies have made in-kind gifts.

But Emerson stretches her annual budget. As Lauren Bacall said about Marilyn Monroe in "How To Marry a Millionaire" when the latter left home with only pocket change and returned with piles of expensive packages: "She can be very clever with a quarter."

"There is always the element of surprise in having to adapt to tons of different people," says Emerson, 54, "But the job is always fluid. I can wear bib overalls, but I can also put on a suit and panty hose and go look for money."

Emerson's enthusiasm is infectious. And those who know her say she's unflappable. This is good. Ratcheting-up the once near-moribund market requires a fleet-footed minuet of snaring and satisfying vendors, communicating with municipal officials, luring corporate sponsors, keeping neighborhood merchants and residents smiling, and maintaining a historic public space.

ome days are less predictable than others. On a recent early morning Emerson is fretting. It's 48 hours from start of The 2nd Annual International Brunswick Stew Festival, one of the handful of popular, annual, signature events Emerson has introduced. The U.S. Attorney General has just issued a terrorist "high alert."

Emerson, tightly wired even on a slow day, wonders aloud how this might affect attendance. "Will anybody come to the festival?" she asks her two assistants, Lila Kerns and Cindy Neuschwander, who are engrossed in phone calls.

Emerson's mind races as her eyes flash around the small, multiwindowed room the women share at the marketplace. But truth to tell, with all surfaces piled high with papers, office equipment and all manner of props from festivals and promotions past, the place already looks like a bomb exploded.

Emerson's mood swings skyward, however, when the door opens and a stew-master from North Carolina enters with a cheery greeting. "Same spot as last year," Emerson says, handing him his registration packet after general chitchat. If Mrs. Fernow herself had walked in, Emerson wouldn't have been more pleased.

"That's why I love my job," she says later. "I get to meet the stew-masters. To me it's an honor to meet these crews that are serious about what they do. They are real people. They are incredible people. There's a lot of magic in what they do. It's very physical. It's a performance piece.

"The duties are delineated, there are rituals. Stew-making is folklore; it is a work of art."

Suddenly, Emerson squinches her nose: "What's that funky smell? When it doesn't rain for a long time, the sewers down here get stagnant."

f Emerson approaches her job with curatorial flair as well as entrepreneurial focus — she often makes casual references to "performance art" and "folklore" — there's a reason. Before coming to the market in May 1998, she was a jewelry artist and had worked for 10 years at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery.

While self-admittedly successful and satisfied fashioning jewelry, the production side got her down. "I was going through, 'I should make a switch.'"

Emerson was hired as market manager on the heels of a city-sponsored consultant's study that recommended that the market, which had been going downhill for decades, be developed as a regional economic asset. Things were otherwise moving fast in the Bottom. While the flood wall was completed, new restaurants and residences were transforming empty factories and warehouses and Main Street Station was slated for dramatic rehabilitation, the district's centerpiece — one of the nation's oldest continuous markets — wasn't keeping pace.

The report recommended hiring a manager with an entrepreneurial spirit.

During her watch, Emerson has restored considerable and refreshing zip to the old place. In addition to the Brunswick stewfest, which attracted some 20,000 people this year, other major special events include the summer Shockoe Tomato festival, an annual arts fest and "Celebrate, Illuminate," part of downtown's Yuletime festival.

On Thursdays, the Growers' Market has become a midweek tradition and attracts hundreds of shoppers from throughout the region looking for fresh and unusual produce and baked goods. On Sundays, the Heirloom Market attracts hundreds of shoppers searching for antiques. (The latter market concludes this Sunday and will start up again in early spring.)

"I think what's going on at the market is terrific because it's balanced; it's family-oriented," says Gray, a nearby resident who owns the Eric Schindler Gallery on Church Hill. "It's not all about beer parties."

Emerson says the market's history and location make allure and texture a major attraction: "Shockoe Bottom is a different, special place to begin with. It's not a self-conscious place," she says. "Here, you can be yourself. It's got every social class, age, creed. That's what it's here for, everybody. We try to make things free. There's no reason not to be here."

ompared to canal walks, hotels, theaters and a convention center, the market's annual city budget line item of $150,000 seems insignificant. But the right leadership in the right place, along with enthusiastic support from City Hall, is apparently making a difference at the market.

"Kathy has energy, humor and the patience of Job— and all three in abundance," says John Woodward, the city's director of economic development and Emerson's boss. "She springs to action when the sun rises.

"When I see her number on my answering machine and know that she has called, I know it's going to be another situation comedy. If I wrote everything down and tried to pitch it as a plot, they'd never believe it."

The day before the Brunswick Stew festival, rancid odors were percolating from the market's sewer grates. Trouble was, a group of corporate sponsors and other swells were expected for a kick-off reception. Emerson considered sealing off the drain temporarily. That had worked in the past. This particular afternoon, however, she dispatched Woodward off to buy bottles of Pine-Sol. "He was so cute in his camel blazer trying to figure out the best way to pour the stuff down the sewer," Emerson recalls.

Woodward declined to discuss the incident.

he Farmers' Market didn't exist as far as I knew," Emerson says of her first days on the job in 1998. "I hadn't been on any farms lately."

When she reported for work at the small, two-story brick building that resembles a railroad switching station, there were few office fixtures and little furniture. The bathroom was broken. And a man had set up permanent housekeeping in a shanty he'd built in the marketplace. He supported himself by cooking and selling food to occasional passersby.

But with her first event, Shockoe Tomato, scheduled six weeks away, she went to work. "I immediately set out and called everyone I knew. I gathered everybody together and asked, 'Oh Lord, what do you know?'"

She and a friend donned huge fake tomato headgear, red T-shirts and scarlet tennis shoes and roamed downtown's financial district to publicize the event. More than 1,500 people showed up for the first tomato festival.

One of those attending was John Malinoski, a VCU communication arts and design professor who'd known Emerson at the Anderson Gallery.

"I'd read in the paper that she was at the Farmers' Market and I thought, 'Could that be the same Kathy Emerson?'" Malinoski says. "I came to the event and offered my services."

Malinoski has been designing the market's promotional materials ever since (see sidebar). The boldly colored and memorable images are arguably the most consistent, continuously running marketing campaign of any local commercial or not-for-profit organization. One of his first designs was a general promotional poster with the headline "Shockoe Sprouts." It featured a distinctive, small orange pickup truck carrying a big flower. It was deceptively simple but highly sophisticated.

"Kathy had to do some arm-twisting to get that across," says Milinoski of the design. "But she's fair and sees all sides of an issue. She's dynamic and cosmopolitan, but not with an attitude. I can talk to her about contemporary artists or theoretical issues of communication. She told me [regarding the graphics approach], 'You can't turn us into Greenwich Village, but there's a place for Greenwich Village to be here.' She's a great diplomat. She has those skills."

When Emerson visits Spanish-speaking places, haggling prices and chatting up open-air vendors is no problem. The daughter of an Army engineer, she spent her childhood in Panama, Japan and Chile where her family shopped regularly in outdoor markets.

Her openness and adaptability were honed as she moved about with her parents and three younger brothers. She eventually returned to Virginia and graduated from Fauquier High in Warrenton.

Growing up, she spent a great deal of time by herself and read. But she also put on plays and gave orders to her brothers: "I organized around the house, delegating my brothers: 'You should do this, you do that.' I'm probably a control freak."

"But when you move from country to country you're always around different people. When you move from country to country as a child, you have to get along. A lot of that has helped me with this job."

endors are setting up cedars and local evergreens for the holiday selling season, but with four seasons behind her, Emerson will spend most of the coming months planning and fund-raising. One of the goals that city economic development officials have established is making the market eventually financially self-sufficient. No timetable has been set.

But she knows the market must grow to thrive.

"Four straight market days next year — that's my dream," she says. "The Growers' Market from Wednesday through Saturdays and the Heirloom Market on Sundays."

But from her mantra of "homegrown or handmade" she'd like to develop additional activities. "Through some act of the cosmic muffin I'd love to see victory gardens here," she says, citing the individual garden plots in the publicly owned Boston Fens or the "Pea Patches" in Seattle.

She has started a children's market which she calls "anemic." "But, we're working on it. This can be educational. A child can grow vegetables, harvest them, handle the sales transaction and taxes. It's social, it's a business."

Eventually, she would like to see the tangle of power lines that crisscross Shockoe Bottom's streets placed underground.

Both she and Woodward would like to see construction of an enclosed market so they could expand and run year-round. "One reason the market got so neglected was that they tore down the old market house," says architectural historian Loth. "For the life of me I can't understand why it came down. The sheds are OK, but they are not serious works of architecture. In places like Philadelphia and Boston, architecture makes a contribution to a sense of place. Why can't we have it back?"

But ultimately, Emerson says the market's energy and future must be vendor- and customer-driven: "The driving forces are the vendors and the customers," says Emerson. "They drive me, they drive this place."

"It's not me," she says, "I work with a great staff and have fabulous volunteers. They make me look good."

"You cannot think for people," she says, suggesting that long-run, annual public events can grow stale. "You can't assume people will, or won't, like something. You've got to give them a chance. But not the same-old, same-old."

Emerson, who puts in an average of 65 hours a week, hasn't had a vacation since she started managing the market. "I can get exhausted, just exhausted. But it's more of an emotional thing than a physical thing. It never lets up."

"But it's like having a baby," she says. "You have to wait 'til it's ready for a babysitter."

And there are rewards. At a recent Thursday Growers' Market, Emerson says a customer she'd never seen made her day: "It's too hard to be on a plane right now, so I'm not traveling," the woman said. "It feels so good to be here. It's comfortable. It's natural."

"Technology is a wonderful thing," Emerson says. "But it has reduced the things that are available to our sense of touch and feel. Here, you can buy a head of lettuce from the person who grew it. You can buy a wooden bowl from the person who made it."


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