Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Faneuil Hall marketplace

I am sitting by the Boston Harbour as I write this post. There’s the hum of people talking as they walk past and the live music that’s playing nearby. There’s a view of the boats at the harbour with the reflection of the afternoon sun shimmering on their sides. This is just a two-minute walk from the Faneuil Hall marketplace where I’ve been all morning, my second time this week. It’s the weekend and there are crowds everywhere.

The Faneuil Hall building as you approach it from the Boston Harbour side

The Faneuil hall has served as a marketplace and meeting hall since it was built in 1742. It was donated to Boston by wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil to accommodate farmers bringing their products to town. The hall was built on land gained by the filling of a cove near the dilapidated town dock. The lower level of the hall was divided into stalls which sold meat, vegetables and dairy products. The large meeting room on the upper floor became Boston’s official town hall.

The Plan of Boston showing the long, rectangular Quincy market and the North & South market buildings on either side as they face the Faneuil Hall. To the right, the map shows the Boston harbour. The 'North End' seen above is an old, Italian neighbourhood.

In 1761, fire gutted Faneuil Hall, burning the interior. Two years later, repairs were completed, this time financed by a public lottery. In 1826, the Marketplace was expanded to include the new Quincy market building (as well as the North market & South market buildings) and became the hub of New England commerce in response to Boston’s rapid growth. These three market buildings along with the Faneuil Hall’s market stalls continued to be Boston’s wholesale food distribution center until the 1960’s. (Source: National Park Service, U.S.Department of the Interior, MA)

The small sign of old times still exists, unlike the signage culture of today where urban landscapes with the scale and intensity of hoardings are becoming "cities of signs"

Today, the Faneuil Hall is not a market in the traditional sense. There are no vendors selling fruits and vegetables or fish and meat. There are no flower sellers or booksellers. There is no barter, there is no bargaining, not anymore. The ground floor contains shops and eating establishments. The second floor meeting room is used by the Park Rangers of the National Park Service. The third floor has the museum and armory of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. Here is a link to the official website: http://www.faneuilhallmarketplace.com/

A shopfront inside the Quincy market building with its line of eateries offering clam chowder, bagel pizzas, icecreams and starbucks coffee and so much else.
Now, the Faneuil hall is visited by not only the locals who live in Boston but also tourists who come here from all over the country and from all over the world. You can buy food, you can buy clothes, you can learn about the history of the place, you can hear live music sometimes.

The urban space between the three market buildings becomes the place for social interaction
You find places to be with the food and the music; spaces where you can sit and watch people as you contemplate about life. The Faneuil Hall marketplace and the Boston Harbour are urban spaces that are designed to let you do that. And, I think that’s what I like about this marketplace. Here, you can relax after you shop, you can spend time with your family outdoors in the midst of the shopping and the eating. It’s a place where you can take a stroll, have a drink, laugh together as you “do nothing”.

I am reminded of Jan Gehl’s book Life between buildings which emphasizes that planning processes must begin by understanding the spaces between buildings. He says, “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works.” The book was first published in 1971 and continues to be a widely used handbook on the relationship between public spaces and the social life in cities.

In an Indian bazaar, the “life between buildings” is sometimes about livelihoods, sometimes about shelter (with streets often encroached upon by migrants & the informal sector). It is never about “doing nothing”. It is not a concept associated with our urban spaces. We do not have planned urban spaces. We have streets that flow into each other and life flows in these streets.

The pushcarts inside the market buildings create an informal environment for shopping. Faneuil Hall marketplace was the first in the country to introduce pushcart shopping providing entrepreneurial opportunity to New England artisans.
As I walk the streets of Boston and absorb the marketplace experience at Faneuil Hall, I realize that there is so much to appreciate here and to learn from and simultaneously know that the complexity in the streets of India has its own place. It is yet an unplanned complexity, one in which there are many who participate, knowingly or unknowingly. Of course, the mind goes back to India and to Russell market in Bangalore which a friend tells me has been buzzing with Ramzan festivity in the evenings.

A sign that we'd like to see outside the many, many historic market buildings in the cities of India conserving architectural heritage and our urban heritage.
I sit down a second time now to continue writing this post, now at the Coop Store at Harvard Square, away from the sunny marketplace environment of the Faneuil Hall and the Quincy market. The Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882 and established as a cooperative is open to the public offering four floors of books and a cafetaria. The Coop is a store where you browse books with greater leisure than you would in a library, sipping your coffee and knowing that the Coop Store like the Faneuil Hall is designed for you to contemplate about life and all you want to learn from it.

Related Posts:
The Marketplace: Lonely Planet Blog Carnival #23