St. Roch Market, New Orleans

In the week surrounding the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a major step was made in the preservation effort of one Historic New Orleans building and community. Considered by some to be the best preserved of the few remaining public market structures in the city, the little-known 1875 St. Roch Market was abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. For nearly seven years the Greek revival building remained vacant and rusting while the blight of the St. Roch neighborhood behind it followed suit. As the area’s crime and violence rates skyrocketed to the worst in all of New Orleans, the revitalization of the market became essential.

The municipal market history in New Orleans is remarkable and merits a much longer study. During the 1800s the nascent city’s total number of markets multiplied so quickly that it became the nation’s leader. When the supermarket began to gain steam in the mid-twentieth century, New Orleans was the last city to give up on neighborhood fresh food markets and modernize. While many other market buildings were demolished or retrofitted to allow newly invented supermarkets to take over, the St. Roch market was one of only four that continued to offer fresh produce or seafood until Hurricane Katrina.

This was in part thanks to FDR’s Works Progress Administration, which provided funding for a 1930s renovation of the building. This work installed refrigeration and a permanent envelope to the building to allow vendors longer operating hours. Before, vendors were required to close by noon due to sanitation worries. Aside from minor interior changes, this was the way St. Roch Market thrived until the 2005 disaster.

Finally, after years of planning and fundraising, a yearlong $3.7 million renovation was all but finished in the summer of 2013. This funding came primarily from federal community development block grants and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The renovation was completed as a “white box” in order to allow multiple offers from operators. The fear from St. Roch residents and fundraisers was that the city would opt for a more profitable option, such as an organic grocer or fancy restaurant. The city, with backlash from residents on potential operators, could not negotiate an agreeable contract with an operator until August 2014.

Historic structure aside, this negotiation also will provide affordable fresh food to an area in desperate need of exactly that. As food deserts already ravage lower-economic neighborhoods, operators are stuck with an impossible predicament: the worry of building and putting money in under-populated areas, and the lack of resources in those areas to merit former residents to move back. This week’s agreement with Bayou Secret, LLC to operate the renovated St. Roch Market as an affordable fresh food market with multiple vendors is a welcome sign to current residents living in fear of crime and violence, and former residents aching to move home.