Jeanne Have remembers the old days, when the customers were poor immigrants -- Romanians, Ukrainians, Puerto Ricans -- and business was good. The staple currency was food stamps. Families would buy them from winos on 25th Street for 75 cents on the dollar, then trade 'em in at the West Side Market for their daily bread. Chalk it up to the efficiencies of the subterranean economy. Everyone made out.
Aisles stayed packed till 6 p.m. Small cheese stands could support four employees. Butchers went through 10 head of cattle a week and sold pot roasts weighing in at 14 pounds. They were craftsmen serving an appreciative clientele. And the babushka lady with eight mouths to feed -- she was the center of this universe.
"When I first started, you had a lot of ethnic people, poor people, and they'd buy very smartly," says Have, now in her 17th year at the market.
But talk to vendors about these days, and you'll hear a considerably different tale. In their eyes, the revitalization of Ohio City, arguably Cleveland's greatest success story, may well doom its most sainted institution.
They are an odd couple, the market and its surrounding neighborhood. Though the "new" building was constructed in 1912, the market's origins go back to 1840. Its charm is its resistance to change. There are uncleaned fish, whole lambs and pigs, slabs of meat large and menacing enough to rob a bank with. If you've descended from Europe or the Middle East, you can buy the food of your ancestors. This isn't authentic ethnic cuisine like you'll find at Olive Garden, conveniently located in authentic ethnic neighborhoods, like the frontage road at the mall. This is the genuine article.
But if the market stayed unvarnished, Ohio City has not. During the past decade it has gone from a ragged assemblage of dying stores and deceased houses to a place heaving with new condos, restaurants with menus printed on fine paper, professionals with enough munitions in their MasterCards to restore turn-of-the-century homes to their former glory. Yes, the yuppies have arrived.
At this juncture in the story, an alternative newspaper is supposed to trot out the obligatory rant against gentrification, cursing that unholy trinity of latte, SUVs, and Palm Pilots.
But this is Cleveland. Though it took us 50 years to grasp the concept, it's rather hard to sustain a city on abandoned factories and boarded-up houses alone. You need people who believe their Visa will lose its powers if it doesn't get a daily workout. And despite the best efforts of civic leaders, who are intent upon restoring Cleveland to its original state as a shantytown, these people have come to conquer Ohio City.
Welcome, yuppies. Tell your friends.
This would seem a good thing for the market. Mighty wallets usually lift cash registers. But the opposite is true. "Our stand is doing a quarter less than last year," says Have. "Everyone else around here is crying. I just don't know if this place is going to be here. That's what everybody's worried about."
Of course, there are many reasons for this. Start with the economic recovery, in which somebody forgot to bring the jobs. Or the change in eating patterns. If you'd called yourself a vegan when this place was built, you'd've likely been mistaken for a devil worshiper, then stomped in accordance with Catholic and culinary law.
There are also problems with the market itself. The babushka ladies knew how to handle fruit vendors practicing the time-honored trick of filling the bottom of your bag with rotten produce. The yuppies take it in silence. And don't come back.
But according to Have, it's the neighborhood foot traffic that's always sustained the market. And though the feet now wear better shoes, they're no longer in pursuit of Slovenian sausage the size of minivans.
Vince Bertonasch has been cutting meat since age 15. He has the intensity of a small business owner with too much to do, and he doesn't know quite what to make of these aliens he now calls his customers. They need everything precooked, prepackaged, and prepared, and they use Mapquest to find the kitchen. "The big fancy condos, they're gonna buy one steak and split it between two people," he says, his tone assuring us that this is not as God intended. "These new fancy condos, how often are they gonna cook a week?"
John Hudak agrees. He's worked off and on at the market since 1949. He remembers the days when there were five Hungarian stands alone. But today, he sighs, "These kids maybe like an ethnic sausage around Christmas to cook."
"Nah, nah," interrupts Bertonasch. "They bring it home to Ma to cook."
They speak the way uncles do of the college-boy nephew who can't change his own oil. It's one part amusement, one part revulsion. How can they not admire a sturdy cut of meat, cooked by one's own hand? This is the butcher's lament.
But the people strolling the aisles around Vince's Meats provide verification. You see no moms in hunt of game, their broods in tow. These seem more like window-shoppers, buying gifts, quaint foods in modest portions for special occasions. A coffee stand now occupies one corner, presumably airlifted in from Seattle. In another, a woman sells cakes so ornate they could serve as statues outside of libraries.
"You know what she wants for a slice of cake?" asks Hudak. "$4.50! Who's gonna go for that? Maybe these yuppies, they might like that."
Yet he understands that this is a new world, and that eventually this world would intrude on the West Side Market. Perhaps, 10 years from now, the market will be no more. Perhaps everyone will just sell really expensive cake. When you've been cutting meat since Truman was President, you come to realize that times evolve.
"There's really no one to blame," says Hudak. "Things change."
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