It is a Sunday afternoon in late May, and the St. Roch Market, located along the busy St. Claude commercial corridor, is bustling. People, from infants to seniors, are milling about, studying the menus from the vendors, or dining at crowded tables. Some are lucky enough to grab a seat, while others appear happy to make do standing at a high boy enjoying their meal. A trio featuring jazz guitarist Steve Mazakowski entertains the crowd. Even the outdoor seating area on St. Claude Avenue is full, despite the warm afternoon and the approaching ominous clouds and rumble of thunder in the distance signaling a rain storm is looming. It is another great day at the market since its reopening in early April, a long-awaited day by not only those who live in the St. Roch, Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, but residents across the city and visitors alike.
From New Orleans’ earliest days, open-air markets, pre-cursors to neighborhood grocery stores, were popular sites offering an immense variety of produce, meats, fish and goods to shoppers. At one time, the markets were considered too rough for ladies; hence it was a Creole tradition for gentlemen to do the shopping for their households. Vendors came from far and near, with Irish, German, Italian, French, Hispanic, African-American, Creole and American sectors supplying goods. Some crossed Lake Pontchartrain to ply their waters, including the Choctaw Indians from St. Tammany Parish, who sold herbs such as file for gumbo. Shoppers would have to be prepared to conduct business in many languages: French, Creole patois, African languages, English, Spanish, German, Gaelic, Choctaw, Greek, Maltese and Italian. Stall rents were low and shoppers were plentiful. Cheese mongers, fish sellers, butchers and green grocers provided New Orleans shoppers with basic necessities.
Built in 1875 as an open air-market in the Greek Revival Style at a cost of $14,500, The St. Roch Market was a mainstay of the turn-of-the-century creole neighborhood carrying the same name. It was designed to be built at the intersection of two of the three main boulevards, planned as a major market providing nourishment to the local community as well as serving as the main public meeting space.
By the First World War, there were thirty-two markets scattered throughout the city, with at least one in every neighborhood. After World War II, the City of New Orleans began to privatize many of the older public markets, which had fallen into disrepair during the Great Depression. Even though many new markets were constructed under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s, demographic shifts to the suburbs and the rise of supermarkets chipped away at the old public markets, which steadily lost customers and vendors.
As for the St. Roch Market, a renovation in 1914 fully enclosed it, and a full renovation was completed in 1937 as part of the WPA effort in New Orleans. In 1945, the City leased the St. Roch Market to a private owner for use as a seafood restaurant and it was in operation until Hurricane Katrina.
During Katrina, the building was exposed to heavy wind and rain damage, in addition to a foot and a half of floodwater. In the years following the storm, it was left vacant and exposed to the elements and vandalism and what structural elements remained were decaying rapidly.
In summer 2012, the City began a $3.6 million refurbishment of the 8,600-square-foot St. Roch Market and repairs were completed in early 2014. The St. Roch Market was left as a “white box” so that it could have many potential uses.
The New Orleans Building Corporation (NOBC) – a city agency – sought to find a tenant to lease the St. Roch Market at fair market value who could both operate the property in a manner sensitive to the community’s needs and who had the expertise and financial means to make the market an economically viable venture. After meeting with a number of interested tenants, NOBC selected Bayou Secret, LLC in summer 2014 to operate the St. Roch Market.
Today, the market, which houses 13 local vendors and employs approximately 100 people, showcases prepared foods from a talented and diverse line-up of chefs. Menu offerings are as varied as what was once sold in the historic market. Tunde Wey’s Lagos offers traditional Nigerian cuisine. Korean dishes with Creole accents are prepared by Kayti Williams at Koreole. In the stall called PDR, Rita Bernhardt serves dishes like chilled and smoked tomato soup, kale salad, and a very popular cold fried chicken sandwich. Customers can belly up and order a dozen slurpy treats at the Curious Oyster Company’s marble bar. Classic cocktails, regional beers and wins by the glass are offered at the Mayhaw Bar.
At the St. Roch Market’s grand opening, Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the market a good example of the new New Orleans — one that has federal, local and state governments working hand-in-hand with private industry.
“This is your community center,” Landrieu said. “This is your neighborhood. This is to build this neighborhood back in a way that gives us an opportunity to give folks New Orleans to live and work and play. And of course, the new New Orleans way. This is the only way it works, is for everybody to be at the table, local, state, federal government, horizontal, vertical, neighborhood, community leaders, faith-based, non-profits.”
The St. Roch Market was built as a testament to the faith of the local neighborhood. Hopefully, in the years to come the market can again reclaim its role as anchor for the St. Roch neighborhood.
On this particular Sunday afternoon in late May, a young man wearing an official St. Roch Market shirt named Jacob is happy to tell a handful of diners how much he enjoys living nearby and working in the Market. A vendor working behind a nearby stall holds his toddler in his arms while taking care of his customers. He sways along with the music, gently dancing his child to sleep, her head resting on his shoulder. It is a small part of what makes the St. Roch Market special. It’s the sense of history, the feeling of nostalgia, a sense of place.