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'Old-School' Food Shopping Feels New As U.S. Cities Revive Public Markets

One hundred years ago, before Walmart and Whole Foods and Albertson's and Kroger, grocery shopping was a very different experience.

Many American city dwellers flocked to the indoor public markets — huge, high-ceilinged halls lined with vendors hawking everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to full-service meat and fish counters.

Some were centrally located markets, like Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. or West Side Market in Cleveland. Seattle's Pike Place Market, now 105-years-old, is still going strong. But smaller neighborhood public markets also thrived, as did roadside stands in the summer.

Over time, though, the brightly lit supermarket, with aisles of already packaged goods, emerged as a more convenient option for mid-century America's harried housewives. And in many cities, the old public markets were demolished.

But now there's a reversal, as urbanites and developers keen on fresh food and a more personable shopping experience rediscover the public markets and revive them. As we've reported, farmers markets are proliferating with impressive speed, and the old indoor markets are getting facelifts.

In Washington, D.C., the old Centre Market reopened this month as Union Market, featuring high-end vendors selling everything from homemade kimchee to smoked fish. In some towns, like Napa, Calif., are building indoor public markets from scratch.

"What you can see is that we're starting to move back to the market city model," says Brendan Crain, a spokesman for the Project for Public Spaces, which this month hosted the 8th International Public Markets Conference in Cleveland. "Supermarkets are not going away, but there's a lot more variety now."

Have a look at the slideshow for glimpse of public markets, then and now.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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