By nevin martell | October 8, 2012 | Lifestyle
View of Union Market on Fourth Street and Florida Avenue NE, 1949.
Peregrine Espresso features microbrewed coffee made to order.
Bread from Lyon Bakery is served in some of DC's best restaurants.
A popular presence at farmers' markets, Neopol Savory Smokery sets up shop at Union Market.
Washed-rind selections from Righteous Cheese.
Carolyn Stromberg of Righteous Cheese, which specializes in promoting locally made cheeses.
More than 15 renowned chefs hosted the first Sunday Supper at Union Market.
The new Rappahannock Oyster Bar features shellfish from the Rappahannock River and other select purveyors in the US.
An early predecessor of Union Market, the bustling Centre Market opened in 1871.
Jamie Leeds of Hank's Oyster Bar and R.J. Cooper of Rogue 24 at the Sunday Supper benefit.
Turn off New York Avenue on to the streets of Eckington in Northeast DC, and the world becomes a maze of tightly crisscrossed one-way streets. Along the avenues, an international panoply of wholesalers, importers, and specialty markets jockeys for breathing room. On one byway, a forklift operator moves pallets of Ghanaian yams, while workers unload large cardboard boxes simply marked "Made in China" next door. The warning sounds of delivery trucks backing up mix with a multilingual mishmash of conversations.
Positioned somewhere within the hubbub stands Union Market. Its gleaming new sign—crisp letters in ivory, silhouetted against the blue sky— seems to float serenely above the fray. The market’s block-long warehouse, with its fresh coat of paint and perky orange awnings, stands out against the fading brick façades and well-worn asphalt that typifies this much-neglected quarter of the District. Though Eckington is a single Metro stop away from Union Station on the Red Line, as well as a close shot to both Gallaudet University and the up-and-coming NoMa neighborhood, it remains mostly undiscovered by many Washingtonians.
The lavishly revamped Union Market aims to turn the sleepy subsection into a must-see destination for locals and out-of-towners alike. The multimillion-dollar marketplace is the result of more than six years of work by Edens development group, the firm behind several custom-built shopping destinations and retail-center renovations up and down the East Coast. (The group hatched DC’s highly successful mixed-use center City Vista, at the corner of Fifth Street and New York Avenue.) “Retail has shifted and changed radically over the last decade,” says the firm’s president and chief investment officer, Jodie McLean. “It cannot serve simply a utilitarian purpose; it has to pull a community together.”
With that in mind, the more than 25,000-square-foot, year-round, all-weather market houses an impressive mix of 40 local vendors showcasing the best the city’s burgeoning culinary scene has to offer. In addition to a rotating cast of seasonally appropriate producers, Union Market features permanent storefronts of beloved regional favorites like Peregrine Espresso, Dolcezza gelateria, Lyon Bakery, and Trickling Springs Creamery. In a nod to the marketplace’s original incarnation, the eight-decade-old butchery, Harvey’s Market, anchors the lineup.
The market also boasts exciting new operations from a few familiar faces. Cocktail queen Gina Chersevani’s boozy soda shop, Buffalo & Bergen, is right across the way from Righteous Cheese, a boutique from longtime fromager Carolyn Stromberg. In an effort to promote local producers, approximately one in four of the wedges and wheels in Stromberg’s inventory comes from such area cheesemakers as Meadow Creek Dairy, Pipe Dreams Farm, Everona Dairy, and Firefly Farm. For the self-described “curd nerd,” being involved with Union Market was a chance to be part of the city’s culinary evolution. “It’s the next step for DC,” says Stromberg. “It’ll be like the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco.” For other notable culinary mavens, it’s a chance to sip, sample, and savor. “I like the idea of being able to walk around and grab a bite here and a bite there,” says Rogue 24 chef-owner R.J. Cooper, who cooked at a dinner in the marketplace this spring to benefit the James Beard Foundation. “You can get some oysters, then a cocktail, then some cheese.”
The all-star lineup was carefully curated by Richard Brandenburg, Edens’s director of culinary strategy, himself a veteran of José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup. “He was the biggest selling point,” says Ryan Croxton, co-owner of the newly minted Rappahannock Oyster Bar, which will showcase the Rappahannock River oyster company’s own shellfish, as well as bivalves from a variety of other operations from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and New England. Croxton saw Union Market as a way to expand on his company’s overall philosophy. “We like being part of a revival,” he says. “From our oyster restoration project in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond, it’s always been our angle to be a part of revitalization.”
The market’s redux is more personal for DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. “That neighborhood is very dear to me, because it’s one that I worked very hard to get developed,” she explains. “When I graduated from high school, DC was a no-culture, no-restaurant, no-nothing town. The new Union Market brings variety to the city and creates something that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Union Market has been a landmark and a fixture in the neighborhood since 1931, when it opened a few blocks away as Union Terminal Market. (An even earlier iteration, known as Centre Market, once stood on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the National Archives Building is now.) Filled with more than 700 vendors, it was the grocery-shopping hub of its time. But in 1962, a law outlawing the outdoor sale of meat and eggs upended the operation, so an indoor market space was built a few blocks away on Neal Place between Fifth and Sixth Streets NE—where Union Market has been reborn today. The venture’s name was shortened to Union Market in the late ’80s, although many native Washingtonians and longtime locals still refer to it as Capital City Market or Florida Avenue Market. “It serves as a reminder that although buildings go out of fashion—and seemingly go out of use—they can always come back,” says Martin Moeller, senior vice president and curator of the National Building Museum, who points to the similar restoration of Union Station that was completed in the late 1980s.
Though developers wanted to retain the authenticity and atmosphere of the original space, they were realistic about the building’s viability. In the past two decades, it had fallen into great disrepair. Ultimately, the lone element that builders kept was the exterior wall; everything else was gutted and constructed from scratch. Now stalls and storefronts encircle the market, while two rows run down the center, leaving plenty of space for foot traffic and tables, so shoppers can congregate to enjoy their recent purchases. And, in the broader scheme, as Edens would have it: creating a sense of community while building on the neighborhood’s heritage.
For her part, McLean hopes this 21st-century marketplace will help catapult Washington to the proverbial next level. “You don’t say New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, and DC, but that’s where the city wants to be,” she says. “It can get there, but it has to embrace the creative class and the food culture, and Union Market can be a part of that.”
photography by The Historical society of washington, d.c. (1949 Union market); kevin allen (righteous cheese, salt)