A market sparks a downtown renewal

The farmers' market in Roanoke, Va., where I grew up, has been in continuous operation since 1882 - which shows that fresh-from-the-grower produce has long been popular with city dwellers (see story, right).

By the 1970s, though, the area where the market was located had declined. It wasn't a place anyone wanted to be after dark. Farmers continued to make the trek to town with pickup trucks loaded with onions and lettuce, plums and watermelons, and savvy shoppers still showed up to take home all they offered. But some wondered if the market would survive.

Still, many residents felt it was too important to the community to be allowed to fade away. The market was considered "the heart of downtown," says Chris Hancock, its current manager.

In the 1980s, a renaissance began. Center in the Square - a building housing art, history, and science museums, as well as professional theater, dance, and opera - was built in Market Square.

Soon the area became trendy - vegetarian cafes, art galleries, boutiques. It was quite a contrast - overalled farmers, still wearing muddy boots, and an influx of what one observer called people with Jell-O-colored hair.

But somehow, it worked. The Roanoke City Farmers' Market, which celebrates its 120th anniversary next year, has become a drawing card for out-of-towners as well as for Roanokers, says Mr. Hancock. "It's safe, it's vibrant. It's a seven-days-a-week destination for tourists and locals."

That's good news. And it clearly illustrates that a farmers' market isn't just about food; it provides a sense of community and connection that people want and need.

E-mail the Homefront at home@csps.com.

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