Many of the papers discussed trends for gentrification that markets are undergoing. Gentrification of markets refers to processes of physical and social “upgrading” which aim to attract new customers with higher purchasing power. As in the case of residential gentrification this almost always involves the displacement of many existing traders who cannot pay the higher rents in redeveloped markets or customers who cannot afford the produce anymore. Sometimes the displacement is not necessarily only related to rents and prices but due to the loss of character and sense of place. Other times the displacement can be sudden and forceful.
Several papers discussed the situation of markets in Madrid, the host city of the conference where there are around 35 municipal markets and few private ones. The picture here is complicated with some markets completely or partly transformed into spaces for the elite consumption of gourmet products- very far from their original public service aim – and others still selling affordable produce and functioning as neighbourhood hubs for a mixed population. The paper by Alejandro Rodriguez, presented an excellent diagnostic of the situation where the markets situated in the centre of the city have received the biggest amount of investment in the last few years and have become tourist attractions where more gourmet and organic produce is sold. Elvira Mateos, found that for many residents, internationally recognised markets such as San Miguel or San Anton, are not real markets anymore and they have stopped frequenting them. However, other still central markets such as San Fernando, have taken a different route and traders themselves have taken steps to minimise the gentrification and gourmetisation trends with agro-ecological social movements using the market to distribute produce as explained by Ines Molina. Tania Eneva presented her work looking at the use of street art in markets in Madrid showing how they are increasingly becoming contested urban spaces for different forms of consumption. The transformation of these indoor markets cannot be separated from changes taking place in the neighbourhoods where they are situated and more generally from the last few decades of urban development in the city. This wider picture was presented by Eva Garcia where she outlined the increasing power of retail chains in the city and the displacement of small, neighbourhood and convenience shops by chain or boutique shops. Elvira Mateos offered a theoretical reflection on these transformation from an anthropological perspective. For her, the trends of gourmetisation and the elitisation of food are becoming legitimised in the city despite being a project for the minority which is having a profound impact on traditional public and municipal spaces.
Displacement of traders from markets due to projects of urban redevelopment was a common thread for many of the works presented. In Sofia (Bulgaria), the Women’s Market in the centre of the city has a long history in the city and serves as an affordable meeting place for residents around the city as research presented by Nikola Venkov showed. However the market went through a period of disinvestment and stigmatisation by authorities and the media and eventually a redevelopment project which has recently displaced many of the traders who often came from poor and vulnerable situations. The work of Horacio Espinosa, about a street and informal market in Guadalajara (Mexico) delved deeper into the reasons for the displacement of informal traders; he showed how the hygienist ideas that dominated modernist planning projects in the 19th century in Europe and its colonies, which displaced entire poor populations from city centres are still at work today. Similar plans to civilise and modernise the streets were analysed by Victoria Crossa in the case of Mexico City, where she shows a centuries’ long history of forced displacement of street vendors away from the central spaces. Street vending is a very important form of livelihood in Mexico City and it exists in various forms. Norma Gómez discussed the traditional “tianguis”, formal street trading, which employs around 170,000 people in the city (a low estimate) and which are organised in strong trader associations and control public space.
In general, many of the researchers provided evidence to show that markets are undergoing processes of transformation which are very similar across the world; Indeed they are becoming contested spaces to which different actors ascribe different meanings. León Téllez discussed the transformations in the San Angel neighbourhood in Mexico City and he asks whether their historical function as public resources or collective goods especially for the poorest residents is at risk. Hector Grad took us on a tour around markets in Madrid and Quito indicating trends for touristification and heritage-led gentrification but also pointing out how some less central markets still serve their traditional function. Similar processes were discussed by Álvaro Suárez and León Javier Sierra about a street market in Sevilla (Spain) in a gentrifying neighbourhood which used to be a neighbourhood second hand and flea market now becoming a tourist destination. In Belo Horizonte (Brazil), Rachel de Castro and colleagues explained the complex transformations taking place in the Central Market, a place of much significance in the local and regional identity which is now undergoing processes of gourmetisation, the entrance of franchise shops and non-traditional products.
Few papers discussed resistance or alternatives to these processes of gentrification and displacement described above. My own contribution with Gloria Dawson research (LINK) shared the campaigns that are being fought in London against multiple threats to public markets. These threats generally involve markets being replaced, demolished or marginalised in favour of private-led developments or luxury housing or shopping centres. The paper by Vicky Habermehl discussed a very different story in the Palermo neighbourhood in Buenos Aires where the Bonpland market, initially occupied by a neighbourhood assembly, has been practicing and promoting social economy exchanges, prioritising fair trade and solidarity.
All of these tensions in the transformation of markets were perfectly reflected in the documentary “Permanecer en la Merced” “Staying put in La Merced” about possibly the biggest market complex in Latin America located in Mexico City, which has become a home for traders and neighbourhoods of this stigmatised area and which is now facing a redevelopment project. The makers of the documentary, the collective Left Hand Rotation, presented their work at the conference.
All in all the conference provided a great space for the discussion of transformations in markets – a topic which has so far not been treated by critical urban scholars but which is gaining more attention. Unfortunately similar trends of gentrification, elitisation of spaces and food and displacement of customers and traders were identified. Public markets need to be regarded as public urban commons and we need to start to think how to reclaim them as affordable community spaces.
The proceedings of the conference will be published soon and all these papers will be freely available here: http://contested-cities.net/congreso2016/en/home/