James Beard Public Market
James Beard Public Market: The Journey and It's Namesake
Portland, Oregon: World-Class Food, But No Public Market—Yet.
It’s a city renowned nationwide for a deliciously dizzying concentration of first-rate eateries: a place where white-tablecloth establishments and innovative food carts happily rub shoulders on the very same plane of quality, and where genre-scrambling chefs take equal delight in the old-school and the cutting-edge. And it’s a city that treats those chefs to a uniquely rich and varied foodshed: from the bounteous soil of Sauvie Island to the meat-on-the-hoof country east of the Cascades, from the halibut-packed waters of the North Pacific to the salmon-roiled mighty Columbia River.
It’s a city unabashedly fond of craft beer and downright flush with world-class breweries, and one within spitting distance of some of the country’s most-esteemed wineries.
And, mind you, it’s a city populated by folks who embody, to bone-deep degree, the locavore and farm-to-table movements, and whose pride-of-place gives New York City’s a run for its money.
Given that formidable set of conditions, it’s quite remarkable that Portland, Oregon has been without a great centrally located public market for decades. That’s a void the under-development James Beard Public Market aims to fill—provided, that is, it can iron down the right location, secure the necessary funding, and prove its mettle as a long-term, viable hub for food and food culture.
Portland, of course, boasts a high-caliber lineup of weekly farmers’ markets: nearly 50 of them, large and small, sprinkled all across the metro area. The James Beard Public Market — named in honor of the massively influential chef and cookbook author whom Portland claims as a native son — would facilitate the kind of direct producer-consumer commerce those local farmers’ markets offer, but it would do so on a daily, large-scale basis in a dedicated year-round space. Yet commerce is but one facet of the market’s mission:
“The Market will become the hub and connector to the surrounding cultural, social and economic districts… to showcase our region’s bounty, promote sustainable agricultural practices, encourage healthy eating, and provide entrepreneurial opportunities for those who produce and sell the food we eat.”
Plans call for better than 50 permanent vendors along with 40 rentable day tables, plus on-site restaurants and a teaching/demonstration kitchen and culinary event facility.
Location, Location, Location
Last autumn saw some significant turbulence along the Beard Market’s path to becoming. The Historic Portland Public Market Foundation, the non-profit established to operate the market, revealed cold feet about the original planned location at the west flank of the Morrison Bridge.
Chief among the thorny issues attached to the downtown location are the half-loop ramps linking the Naito Parkway to the Morrison Bridge, which represent both a structural constraint and “a true pedestrian hazard,” as the Beard Market’s executive director, Fred Granum, noted in an interview on the Portland Architecture blog.
For the past several years, the market and the Morrison Bridgehead developer have been lobbying the city to change or remove those on/off-ramps, but issues with both cost and the timetable proved significant roadblocks. While Granum emphasized that then-Mayor Charlie Hales and the Portland Bureau of Transportation were open to the idea, he told Portland Architecture: “it became obvious a few months ago that it wasn’t going to happen in our lifetime. The mission this organization has is to get a public market open. The challenges of that site were inhibiting our ability to do that.”
In announcing its decision to withdraw from the Morrison Bridgehead initiative, the market’s board of directors noted it was optimistic about several alternative locations, including two in the so-called Portland Innovation Quadrant: the rapidly transforming South Waterfront district and, across the Willamette River, the area around the east side of the Tilikum Crossing bridge. In November 2016, word came that it’s that latter option — and specifically a 17-acre property being developed by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) — which the Beard Market is moving forward with.
“It’s an attractive site for countless reasons,” Granum said in a news release. “Teaming up with OMSI and its partners on the Innovation Quadrant will benefit the entire community.”
Notably, the architectural firm that OMSI has hired to conjure a master plan for the property, Oslo-based Snohetta, is the very same firm the Beard Market had previously worked with to shape its now-scrapped Morrison Bridgehead design.
Organizers have said the market could open as early as 2020.
A Brief History of Portland's Public Markets
The James Beard Public Market initiative is merely the latest chapter in Portland’s long and somewhat rocky relationship with public markets — background meticulously laid out in George Eigo’s Oregon Historical Society publication A Market for the City: the History of Portland’s Public Markets (which you can read at the Beard Market’s website), to which the following paragraphs owe most of their meat.
Space for a public market in Portland had already been platted out within a few years of the city’s incorporation in 1851, though it took until the 1870s for some version of one to open up: the posh first-floor produce exchange in Captain A.P. Ankeny’s New Market and Theater on SW 1st, bracketed by Ash and Ankeny (then “A” Street), which also housed a grand 1,200-foot playhouse and gymnasium.
The first true daily public markets in Portland, the Albina Public Market on Knott Street and the Carroll Public Market on Yamhill, were established in the mid-1910s. Initially overseen by the Producers’ and Consumers’ Public Market Association, the Carroll Market’s rapid-fire success soon led the City of Portland to assume management. Centrally situated and widely publicized, the well-thronged market steadily expanded: At its height, it sprawled over six blocks and every day hosted better than 400 vendors. Cities around the country keyed into the Carroll Market’s success, hoping to emulate it.
The competition presented by the Carroll Market agitated some grocers — who, by the early 1920s, were contending with the emergence of grocery chains in the city — and some vendors chafed against its regulations. But the main challenge it faced, as Eigo notes in his history, came from its very own booming prosperity: overloading constricted downtown streets with shopping traffic and stalls and struggling with sanitation in such a jam-packed quarter.
In 1927, a study commissioned by the city council concluded the Carroll Market had outgrown its Yamhill Street digs and suggested it pull up stakes and move to a bigger site along the riverfront. Some vendors took issue with the change, noting the proposed new home lacked the fertile customer base of the downtown core, and the Yamhill Market Producers’ Association resisted the market’s privatization. Some sellers did indeed stay behind when the reincarnated Carroll Market — the Portland Public Market, breathlessly introduced as “Portland’s Marvelous New Million-Dollar Market” — opened to much fanfare in December 1933.
Stretching 620 feet along the newly built Willamette River seawall between the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges, the Portland Public Market ranked as the biggest in the world at the time. It was, unquestionably, a state-of-the-art installation, with overhead lighting and sprinkler systems for every stall, an elevator, rooftop parking and a demonstration kitchen presenting to a 500-seat auditorium. Four years after its grand opening, the “Million-Dollar Market” boasted upwards of 60,000 weekly customers shopping for meat, produce, baked goods, and myriad other food items and various services, which generated, all told, annual sales of $5 to $6 million.
Such scale and splendor weren’t fated to last very long; the market didn’t even make it a decade. Opening against the backdrop of the Depression didn’t help. For another thing, the geographical concerns of those Yamhill Street stalwarts ended up playing out: By the early 1940s, more people were moving to East Portland on the other side of the Willamette and out to the suburbs, and a planned rail line that could have shuttled in shoppers from farther afield never materialized. More broadly, Eigo argues in A Market for the City, the Portland Public Market may simply have misjudged its customer base and its role.
What happened to the Million-Dollar Market building — such a bright, if brief, center of action in the Rose City? Following the Public Market’s closure, the structure housed the U.S. Navy and then, beginning in 1946, the Oregon Journal. In 1969, it was razed to make way for Tom McCall Waterfront Park. These days, Portland Saturday Market goes down in that very greenspace, a stone’s throw north of where the old Portland Public Market ephemerally flourished.
James Beard: A Name to Live Up To
The market certainly chose for itself a worthy and inspiring namesake. Long before “foodie” was part of the vernacular — and long before Portland’s emergence as an epicurean destination of national renown — the Rose City was making its mark on the culinary world thanks to its native son James Beard. Born in Portland in 1903, Beard grew up savoring his mother’s cooking and that of Let, a Chinese chef his mother had hired. In his memoir, Delights and Prejudices, he shares a memory from age 3 of crawling into the pantry and wolfing down, whole, a raw onion. His family spent summers in Gearhart on the Oregon coast, where the seafood and foraged edibles made a lifelong impression.
A Washington High graduate, Beard had a brief stint at Reed College, which expelled him for after having affairs with "one or more male students and a professor." Yet in 1976, the college awarded him an honorary degree and Beard ended up leaving Reed his personal library of the cookbooks he’d written as well as an endowment for the James Beard Scholarship Fund.
Over a long and productive life, Beard established himself as one of the 20th century’s foremost authorities on gastronomy: He appeared in the very first televised cooking show, founded cooking schools in Seaside as well as the Big Apple, and taught classes all over the country — his last in Oregon in 1981. The heart of his career, though, is the mind-boggling stack of cookbooks he penned over five decades. His first two were groundbreaking treatments of cocktail eats (Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés, 1940); and outdoor cooking (Cook It Outdoors, 1941); while his fourth, The Fire Side Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (1949), really made his name. In his recipes and his writing, he encouraged a bold but unpretentious American cuisine: a cuisine he helped define through classics such as James Beard’s American Cookery, his nearly-1,000-page-long answer to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. (Child was a friend and a fan of Beard, whom she called “the quintessential American cook.”)
Better than 6 feet tall and generally in the neighborhood of 300 pounds, fond of kimonos and cooking breakfast in his birthday suit, a gourmet and a gourmand, Beard was a charismatic, vivacious man, traits that come through plainly in his writing. Here are the closing sentences of the introduction to his final book, Beard on Pasta (1983), in which he addresses the art of eating noodles swirled around the fork, Italian-style: “A few luscious strands are bound to hang loose, and must be taken into the mouth as skillfully as possible. If you slurp them, so be it. Because the truly best way, the only classical and true way, to eat pasta is with gusto.”
Beard died in New York City in 1985, and his ashes were scattered on the North Oregon Coast, a land- and seascape he held dear his entire life. Many of his cookbooks remain in print, and every year, the non-profit dedicated to his ideals, the James Beard Foundation, awards some of the most prestigious culinary honors in the country. (This year’s James Beard Foundation Awards’ semifinalists, announced in February, find Oregon impressively well represented among feted chefs and restaurants — from Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon up for “Outstanding Chef,” to Peter Cho’s Han Oak, in the running for “Best New Restaurant in the United States.”)
The James Beard Public Market: Forging a New Chapter
Blossomed and wilted during a very different era in a much smaller version of the city, the Portland Public Market nonetheless must serve as something of a cautionary tale for the Beard Market, which, had it ended up occupying the Morrison Bridgehead real estate, would have sat at the north end of its predecessor’s spectral footprint.
As Brian Libby notes in his Portland Architecture interview with Granum, the main potential flaw of the OMSI campus as a home for the Beard Market is its present remoteness from major residential neighborhoods. Drawing foot traffic will likely be key to the public market’s success, as the Million-Dollar Market’s downfall hints at. Of course, improving access and walkability as well as attracting residents is part of the multifaceted scheme over on the South Waterfront side of the Portland Innovation Quadrant — which would, in the car-free public-transit/walk/bike bridge of Tilikum Crossing, have a friendly and convenient conduit to an OMSI-based market. Furthermore, Libby writes, “residential development may become part of the OMSI site as it builds out.”
Furthermore, a daily public market — especially one with such a high profile and drawn-out gestation as the Beard — is bound to draw an initial crowd in a 21st-century Portland so staunchly in the thrall of local food, booze and other products. Chefs in particular are likely to be keen on having an everyday source of fresh, varied meat, seafood and produce.
Attracting and retaining a steady and sustainable customer base and utilizing its input to evolve; selecting the right mix and caliber of vendors; hashing out what coexistence with dozens of neighborhood farmers’ markets looks like and what being a community focal point is like — the James Beard Public Market has an intense coming-of-age ahead of it. No telling — not yet— whether it’ll enjoy the kind of run that Seattle’s Pike Place (celebrating its 110th anniversary this year) has had, or whether its arc will look more like the Million-Dollar Market of yore.
Naturally, you need a location from which to launch an arc in the first place, and on that count, the James Beard Public Market — after a pivot — seems to have taken a few big steps forward.