A Tale of Two Markets

Story and Photos by Alaina Van Slooten

At Boston Public Market, a cabbage costs $3.50. At Haymarket: $1. These two markets are located in the heart of downtown Boston and are so close together that upon exiting Boston Public Market’s doors shoppers stumble directly into the tarp-plastered corridors of Haymarket. But choosing one cabbage over the other isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Despite their proximity, the two markets are different worlds. Each plays a distinct role in the city’s food system and epitomizes many of Boston’s cultural divides. One caters to a wealthy, eco-conscious consumer who can afford to splurge on a selection of artisanal cheeses, while the other provides fruits and vegetables at rock-bottom prices to any customer who braves the weather and crowds.

The Boston Public Market air is warm, richly scented by freshly-fried apple donuts and beeswax candles. Vendors ply shoppers with samples of small-batch birch syrup and toothpick-speared bites of mold-encrusted cheese. The organization was formed in 2015 with the mission to “create opportunity for small businesses to thrive” and “nourish… community”. It provides food entrepreneurs and small producers with brick-and-mortar locations as well as a guaranteed daily influx of potential customers.  The majority of the market is occupied by stalls offering ready-made foods, like Noodle Lab’s customizable ramen and Finesse Pastry’s colorful array of French macarons. The market attracts large lunch crowds of nearby office workers and tourists looking for a place to warm up. Every food or craft is produced in New England, so consumers can feel good about supporting local economies. And when buying a squash direct from Siena Farms in Sudbury, consumers get to experience a direct connection to their food’s origins. Sustainability is major selling point. Produce selection varies with seasonal availability. Grass-fed meats, line-caught fish, and “conscientiously grown” vegetables command premium prices from those who can afford to do their grocery shopping there. Beyond shopping and eating, Boston Public Market also functions as community event space. The attached kitchen classroom hosts programs for vendors to test new ideas on the public and educational classes run by local chefs. 

Haymarket is a sensory overload of screamed sales pitches and gusts of frigid wind — threatening to collapse a maze of tents that appears every week, only to evaporate 48 hours later. It caters to no one but the experienced — don’t you dare try to pay with a twenty or buy one tomato when they’re clearly marked two pounds for three dollars. Bargains abound because vendors buy produce from wholesale distribution centers looking to clear out stock before the weekends. The quality of the produce is variable: sometimes irregularly shaped or slightly overripe. But this allows huge quantities of food to make it into the hands of consumers, rather than being wasted. The thrillingly low prices attract crowds from all walks of life. A 2009 customer survey done by the Project for Public Spaces found that its shoppers represent a more ethnically and financially diverse population than any other market in the city. The diversity of buyers is reflected in the selection of foods pulled from unknown corners of the world: rambutans and Japanese yams, papayas and coconuts. Haymarket has existed in some form for hundreds of years, and throughout that time has been an important source of employment and low-barrier entrepreneurship for immigrants. Today, some vendors have worked the same stalls for decades and others are new Bostonians. All vendors have a role that connects Boston to its past, while providing forward-thinking solutions to holes in the city’s food system.

These two sites occupy opposite ends on the spectrum of roles a market can have. Boston Public Market sells products differentiated by origin stories and atmosphere in a way that caters to a wealthier demographic. Its artisanal products present a stark contrast to the unpretentious raw goods hawked in tents outside its doors. At Boston Public Market, sustainability is a principal as well as a marketing tool, while many Haymarket shoppers never know the part they play in reducing food waste. For all their differences, both markets function as public spaces where Boston comes together. They are places of exchange, interaction, and connection, whether it be to people, to farms, or to a sense of history. Choosing to spend money at either of these markets is an expression of consumer identity, a reflection of one’s values and lifestyle; where do you shop?

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