Last week, Monday Magazine listed 10 Things Victoria Needs, and a few readers noticed that “public market” wasn’t on the list. Vancouver’s Granville Island and Seattle’s Pike Place Market are beloved by residents, and successful tourist attractions to boot. So why doesn’t Victoria, a touristy city that’s close to the best year-round farmland in Canada, have a market building of its own?
It turns out there are reasons for this gap in our infrastructure. Sad to say, central public markets have a weirdly uneven history in Victoria.
The city’s first market was built by private businessmen in 1861, but only lasted a few months: the owners blamed its failure on public indifference, and competition from Chinese farmers who peddled vegetables door-to-door. In 1878, white farmers successfully petitioned the city to build another indoor market, but the construction was so shoddy that the farmers stayed away.
There was debate about the real need for a public market, even at that time. Some argued that it would promote local agriculture and reduce Victoria’s dependence on imported food, but one newspaper editorial pointed out that “the produce of Washington Territory, Oregon and California could be transported as cheaply as that of Comox, Cowichan and even Saanich.” Nevertheless, voters eventually passed a resolution allocating $50,000 to build a new market – and in March of 1891 the city burned down a part of Chinatown just west of City Hall to make way for the construction.
John Teague, the architect who created the 1878-built City Hall, also designed the market. It was a grand, two-storey structure of brick and granite, with a 70-metre-long facade of arches facing onto Cormorant Street (today’s Pandora Avenue). Inside, the main hall had room for 60 stalls and a bandstand, and was surrounded by a second-level gallery, all illuminated by a peaked glass roof. With a gala Christmas party, the Victoria Public Market officially opened its doors in December of 1891.
It was a disaster. As historian Jean Estes noted in a detailed 1975 Daily Colonist article, many farmers were already selling their wares directly to retailers, and avoided the bureaucracy of the city-run market, which was governed by a 67-item bylaw. The city ended up renting stalls to a strange assortment of tenants. One visitor in the late 1890s reported that she saw “a portrait painter’s studio, a real estate agent, the Sanitary Inspector, and the most ghastly of all things – the public morgue was an annex of the market.”
In 1899, taxpayers approved renovations to the building, turning its eastern half into the city’s main firehall. (The city's first fire engine, pictured left, sat in the market for many years.) In 1901, the Victoria & Sidney railway used the main hall as its downtown station, but abandoned the building five years later because the grade on Fisgard Street was too steep for its locomotives. The market sat empty after that, and the city considered using it as a pound for stray animals.
The market did revive, and was most successful during the first and second world wars, when patriotism and worries about food security were at their height. (Everyone pulled together: during WWI the B.C. Electric Railway ran a freight car from Deep Cove, picking up produce at farms along the Saanich peninsula and delivering it to the market by 7:15 a.m.) But in the 1950s, after gasoline rationing was lifted, shoppers were happier driving to the flashy supermarkets that were springing up in the suburbs. The old market showed its age, too: beams had to be installed to support the buckling roof, and an engineer’s report said the cost of upgrading the building would far surpass any rent from the few active stalls. In 1959 the fire department moved to its new headquarters on Yates, and the city council voted to raze the market and turn it into a parking lot.
The market didn’t go without a fight. An Italian-born flower vendor named Attilio Randy (pictured right), who’d had a stall in the market since 1914, launched a protest. He gathered 1,600 names on a petition and held a sit-down strike, refusing to move from the building as bulldozers waited outside. Only a public market could protect small farmers and locally grown food, he told reporters. “Small farmers are part of the civil defence,” he said, arguing the need for “food security” on Vancouver Island. “Today, many small people have deserted their land because of inability to dispose of their produce, yet millions of dollars in vegetables and fruit are imported every year.”
But after four days, tired and beaten, the 72-year-old Randy moved on, and the building was demolished. He sold his flowers from a street stand for a few years, and died in 1973. A few bricks from the old market were incorporated into the Centennial Square fountain that’s on the site today. (For more about the market, see the excellent “Victoria Vignettes” films narrated by historian John Adams on the city archives’ website.)
The dream of a public market lived on, however. After witnessing the success of Granville Island, the City of Victoria discussed building a market on the failed Reid development site across from Bastion Square, but existing merchants complained about the possible competition. In 1983 a restaurateur opened a Victoria Public Market in the Sports Traders building at 508 Discovery, but it struggled even though it had free parking in the lots across the street. The same year, a Vancouver-based company opened the Harbour Public Market at 1810 Store (now Value Village), with 97 merchants and more space than Granville Island, but it went into receivership in 1984 and closed in 1986.
Martin Barnett, who had a stall for his Rising Star bakery at Store Street, says the Harbour market failed because vendors fled the increasing rents. “People can’t pay $40 a square foot to sell fruits and vegetables. The math doesn’t work.” Like many vendors he relocated in 1985 to a market in Hillside Mall, which was more successful, but that disappeared in 1990 when the mall owners realized they could get more rent from a franchised food court.
“I come from England, and the markets there evolved over hundreds of years in places where people met, and towns grew up around those markets. That’s why I think it’s difficult to plan for a market to happen,” Barnett continues. Granville Island and Pike Place succeeded because they were already surrounded by apartment buildings, and no competing supermarkets existed nearby.
Certainly, Victoria’s circumstances are changing. As the price of fuel skyrockets, imported food will become much more expensive. (At least, until it's transported by sailing ships.) The bulk of our population is still sprawled out in the suburbs – which partly explains the sprouting of “pocket markets” in public spaces across the city – but more people are living downtown, and farmers would prefer to sell their wares under one centrally-located roof, out of the wind and rain. Perhaps a developer could be persuaded to build a new market, or some other large space will open up. Who knows? The way gas prices are going, a car dealership might become available very soon.
UPDATE (September 23, 2010): Victorians do indeed have an appetite to create a new downtown market, and this weekend they’re holding a local food festival to raise awareness of their plans. Read more about the project at victoriapublicmarket.com