At age 14, I took a summer job working behind the counter of a butcher stand at Cleveland’s West Side Market. If I’m honest, I dreaded going to work. At that age, I had difficulty seeing the twelve-hour Saturday shifts as anything but one less day at the beach with friends. In typical Midwest fashion, my father told me to stop complaining; I’d learn something from it.
The market got its start in the 1840s when two local landowners donated a tract just to the west of downtown Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River with the caveat that it permanently serve as a community marketplace. In 1912, a yellow-brick neo-classical and Byzantine structure designed by Benjamin Hubbel and W. Dominick Benes was built. It celebrates its centennial this summer.
A byproduct of its longevity, the market is equal parts ethnographic log and cultural guidebook of the immigrant-rich city -- a tangible place where abstractions such as Cleveland’s multifaceted identity manifest themselves. Just one shopping trip offers a world of possibilities: butcher stalls and distinct meats of Germans, Hungarians, Slovenians, and Slovaks; the artisanal bakeries and goods of French and Italians; and the fresh produce stands of Lebanese and Syrians. Anything from Polish pierogis or Cambodian pad thai to authentic Mexican empanadas can be found there -- not to mention Amish cheeses, Indian spices, and fresh local seafood (no joke, just check a map).
The nearly 100 stalls of the interior concourse are composed of glass deli cases and filled to the brim with summer sausages and fresh-caught walleye that create a sweet raw scent and mosaic of color that automatically trigger hunger. Strands of orange product stickers hang on rolls behind counters among local sports paraphernalia and obscure the timeworn but smiling faces of owners hard at work. Everything is wrapped in crisp white paper and priced with the swipe of a pen. The yells of price-haggling in Ukrainian are accented by chiming cash registers that look nearly as old as the building.
Given this cultural significance, aesthetic beauty, and of course, fresh local ingredients, it’s no wonder that the market has also become a hub for the masterminds of Cleveland’s progressive food scene: Iron Chef Michael Symon; renowned food author and charcuterie expert Michael Ruhlman; and one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2010, Jonathon Sawyer.
[Ed. note: We took out a photo here -- different West Side Market!]
Their success has brought national attention to the market, creating an emotional conflict for locals who are eager to refute Cleveland’s reputation as a dead city, but whose upbringing there instills a dogmatic disregard for outside commentary. Willingly or not, the market is a symbol of the embracive, yet tough-as-nails and independent ideology of the city for the rest of the country to see.
So as it turns out, my father was right. More than the different cuts of steak or common phrases in Ukrainian, I learned something from my four short months at the market. I learned how a building can transcend the physical and elevate itself as a portrait of the community around it, and how preservation often isn’t as much about saving a building from destruction, as it is about enriching our own existence.