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West Side Market celebrates 100 years in business

Clevelanders reflect on memories made at historic shopping center

By: Amanda Hayduk

June 14, 2012

The West Side Market, Cleveland’s oldest publicly owned market, is celebrating 100 years of filling our tummies and our hearts with ethnically rich food and traditions.

The West Side Market centennial celebration kicked off early this month on Saturday, June 2 with a festival of food and music. Mark your calendars because there will be several events in the upcoming months, including the 8th International Public Markets Conference from Sept. 21-23, the Street Festival Parade on Sunday, Oct. 7, and the Centennial Gala on Saturday, Nov. 3.

Most, if not all, Clevelanders have a West Side Market memory. As we celebrate the Market’s 100 years in business, many of these stories are being told and reflected upon. My memory begins with my mother, Kathleen, who would take me down to the West Side Market in the early 1990s. I was only five or six years old then and my older siblings were in school all day. This was precious time I would get to spend with my mom.

“I used to bring you down to the Market in that old red wagon. Do you remember the old red wagon?” my mom said, “I would sit you up in that wagon and pull you around the Market. By the end of the trip you would be buried in grocery bags, eating your way through a package of blueberries while I wasn’t looking.”

I don’t recall being suffocated by grocery bags or sneaking fresh blueberries into my mouth while my mother wasn’t looking, but I do have memories of smashing my face up against the glass cases of the stands. What I really remember most are the people overflowing with passion for their food.

“It’s always been such a wonderful place to take your family. Do you know what I mean? I enjoyed taking you there to see and be part of the culture,” said my mom. “I thought it was such a good experience for you to have.”

My mom is right (no surprise there). The West Side Market is like one big family neighborhood. The stands are the houses and the brick floor that outlines the vendor’s stands are the streets. Anne Young and her family were, and still are, a big part of the West Side Market neighborhood.

“I’ve been coming to the West Side Market and shopping here my whole life” said Anne Young, a resident of Ohio City for the past 72 years. “It’s a family tradition that started with my mother who loved cooking.”

Anne’s mother used to bring Anne and her siblings to the market several times a week to find the freshest and most reasonably priced meat, produce, cheese and bread for their family meals.

“My mother was a smart shopper. Now that I’ve gotten older I realize why she chose to come to the market- she loved the people, the atmosphere, the traditions,” said Anne.
The West Side Market is a unique venue that is rich in culture and diversity. There’s nothing quite like it and, for this reason, it has become a tourist attraction in Cleveland. The experience shoppers have at the Market is different every time and has been since the very beginning.

Technically, the origins of the Market date back to 1840 when landowners Josiah Barber and Richard Lord donated a tract of land at the corner of Lorain Road and West 25th to Ohio City. The Market back then was known as an open air marketplace. Over the years, the West Side Market has undergone serious growth and development to reach its current state.

The West Side Market project began in the early 1900s and actually took 10 years to plan and construct due to lawsuits, high standards, and shortages. By 1910, Cleveland was the sixth largest city in the country, changing and growing faster than most Clevelanders realized. Money was flooding into the fast-paced industrialized city, and its citizens craved a monument to show off its success.

The base for the Market, a yellow brick markethouse built out of terra-cotta and granite, was designed by Benjamin Hubbel and W. Dominick Benes. These men also designed other famous buildings in Cleveland, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Wade Memorial Chapel in Lakeview Cemetery. The 137 foot clock tower was built to be a striking Cleveland landmark and has survived the test of time, as it is still considered to be one of the most recognizable city markers.

Not only was the exterior of the West Side Market a site to see, but the interior offered beautiful architecture and interesting innovation. Basement cold storage ran the length below the markethouse. Later, mechanical refrigeration was installed in the basement as a more efficient way to store perishable foods.

Floods of immigrants filled the Market in the 1920s, making it one of the most diverse shopping arenas in the country. New immigrants from Italy, Bulgaria, Russia, Germany, Greece, France, Lebanon and Mexico set up shop at the West Side Market. Even today this diversity becomes apparent when one takes a close look at the names on the signs of the stands; Meister Foods, EDW. Badstuber & Sons (vendor since 1912), Iskander Produce, and Frickaccio’s Pizza Market just to name a few. It’s not uncommon to hear several different languages spoken, even to this day.

The popularity of the Market soared. Shoppers stood three-deep at stands, waiting to get their money taken, their meat cut, beans bagged, and cheese sliced.

During The Great Depression the West Side Market was hit hard, forcing the city to lower prices and vendors to stay past 11 p.m. on Saturday nights just to make extra money.
Shoppers would hear of a good deal on cheese, butter, etc. and buy large quantities of it, wiping some stands out and forcing them under. By 1940, the fear of big supermarkets, citizens moving out into the suburbs, and car ownership threatened the livelihood of the Market. Nevertheless, the West Side Market still attracted nearly 4 million customers a year during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“I love coming to the Market when it’s busy,” said Anne. “It reminds me of when I was a small child, holding my mother’s hand so I didn’t get lost in the crowds. I remember seeing a lot of people wide-eyed and smiling. It was a booming time then.”
So what is it that really attracts a shopper to come to the West Side Market?

Well, that’s easy; it is the fresh, exotic, reasonably priced, and diverse food that can’t be found anywhere else. More importantly, it is the comfortable feeling of home, and the vendors that are hard working, kind, and passionate about what they do. Justin Snyder was one of these workers.

“I spent my teen years working for the Michael’s Bakery stand at the West Side Market,” said Justin. “It was a very unique place to work. I work for a major supermarket now and it’s not the same. It never fails, someone will ask for ground poppy seeds during the holidays and I have to tell them that we don’t do that. In my mind I’m thinking- but the West Side Market does and they will grind them on the spot for you.”

Michael’s bakery sells the best fresh Kuchens, including Hungarian nut and poppy seed. Their kolachies are to die for! The stand has called the Market home for over 40 years and plans to stay as long as shoppers crave their Kuchens.

Czuchraj Meats has also called the Market home for over 40 years. The old world smoked meats are made with real hickory wood and no preservatives. They will make your mouth water. In fact, the stand was featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”, with Michael Symon for their homemade beef jerky.

The West Side Market continues to offer options that shoppers aren’t able to find anywhere else. Foods like stinky Limburger cheese, fresh pasta, whole fish, pigs feet, goat heads, phyllo dough, European sourdough rye bread, pig brains, and the hottest hot sauce that exists are all still offered at the West Side Market.

“As a kid in the 1950’s, I would cringe as I pushed my nose up against the glass of a meat vendor’s case, staring back at me were several goat eyes” said Anne.

The 1950’s and 60’s brought more change and worry. The city spent $1 million repairing the tired-looking shape of the Market, which always posed the question; should the city sell the Market? Protesting vendors and politicians fueled this debate. In the 1960’s, more foods were coming in cans and sweets were laden with high-fructose corn syrup, packaged, and sold cheaply at supermarkets. The Market pushed on, determined to cater to all the needs of the shoppers.

With four generations of produce knowledge, DeCaro Produce enjoys helping families during tough times. It’s said that the DeCaro family has been known to throw in an extra bundle of carrots or head of cabbage as a bonus during tough economic times. This is the sort of unexpected kindness that is special to the Market.

“Ah, yes, my mother particularly enjoyed Mr. DeCaro and his witty banter. That’s still one of my favorite stands to go to” said Anne.

In 1973, the West Side Market was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and declared a historic landmark by the city of Cleveland. With every bright spot there is usually a dark period, and that’s what happened in 1980 when the Carnegie Bridge was shut down for three years in order to conduct repairs. This bridge connected the East Side to West Side and was crucial to the Market’s survival. It’s been said that the Market never recovered from the loss of customers during that three year period.

“Yes, I do remember that,” said Anne. “But that didn’t stop our family from shopping at the West Side Market.”

Still, the vendors set up their stands and the loyal shoppers came. Most vendors know their shoppers by name and purchase. In some ways it didn’t matter what was going on outside the Market politically or financially. The memory-making, haggling, buying, and chatting continued on throughout the decades regardless.

“It was great to see that the Market was being taken care of even though it has seen rough times. I saw the Market undergo one major renovation while I worked there. I’m just happy the city continues to take care of it” said Justin.

The last renovation took place in 2004 when the outdoor produce section was enclosed and heated into what is now known as the arcade. Other much needed cleaning and renovations took place in the main markethouse that year as well.

Today, the market houses over 100 ethnically diverse vendors. Newly added are stands that sell ready-to-eat foods, candy, nuts, and herbs. It’s estimated that the Market brings in over a million visitors each year and has been highlighted in television shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel.

The West Side Market is ecstatic for the year-long celebration and is hoping to draw in new and young blood. Here are Anne’s tips for new West Side Market shoppers; 1. Always take your friends and family with you. 2. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Make sure you walk around and look at everything before you choose what to buy. 3. Ask vendors if you can sample their foods. They will be happy to let you try anything and everything! 4. Ask questions. 5. Always come to the West Side Market with an open heart and mind, and an empty stomach.