Stocking the City

The Architecture and Infrastructure of Public Food Markets

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    3 - The Wholesale/Retail Hybrid, Oaxaca Style (Pt.1)

    Chris DeHenzel
    Feb 17, '12 8:24 PM EST

    As I explained in the previous post, Oaxaca's food system (plus the local economy and social structure) is built around market events called tianguis.  The valleys of Oaxaca are intricately connected by these market days, when people from all over the region migrate around the valley (often by buses or collective taxis, because few people own a car) to buy, sell, trade, gossip, and gawk at the scene, where anything you can imagine is for sale.  Frustrated because you can't get convenience items at your local farmers market?  I picked up toothpaste and soap from the Etla market last Wednesday, cheaper than the supermarket.  You might also find various construction materials, clothing, electronics, a live goat, and possibly a few things that you don't even need.  But the mothership of the system is the wholesale market, known as Central De Abastos. 


    Below is a map of the organizational structure of the Oaxacan food distribution system. From the book, Mercados De Oaxaca, ˆD.R. Fundacion Cultura Anacrusa. 2004.  Various contributors.



    Spatial comparison of major tianguis: location, size and time


    The following 2 images are from the Ocotlan Friday market.  The tianguis quite literally takes over the town, immediately below.  And the massive two story central mercado is packed with regular vendors, plus an arcade... who needs a mall?


    At the Etla Wednesday market (below), the tianguis is confined predominantly to the main street, which runs directly in front of the mercado and iglesia (town church).  The street is closed once a week to accommodate the tianguis, as is typical in most pueblas. 


    The image below is a poster published by the City of Oaxaca to promote the comprehensive system of tianguis.  


    Central De Abastos

    The Oaxaca Central De Abastos is nothing less than a city itself, situated on the edge of the colonial central district, easily accessible by the main highway.  De Abastos, as it is locally known, is the heart of the food distribution system for both the city and the entire string of villages that stretch throughout Oaxaca’s three valleys.  As I discovered on a hair-raising midnight walk through the massive central wholesale/retail market, De Abastos (meaning “of supplies”) is also home to many of the thousands of people that make their living on the slim margins of Oaxacan society, working as resellers.  I walked briskly down the middle of the barely moonlit street behind De Abastos, and became suddenly aware that the endless rows of tarps, which I thought were covering food stands, were actually tents, and that their contents were the breathing, snoring, living people that I would encounter more directly the following morning at the market. 


    Distribution of markets within El Centro, Oaxaca

    Further ahead, pale electric lights, bare bulbs strung to the poles of market stalls, illuminated an almost ghostly scene of early morning deliveries, in near silence, with only the hushed voices of prices being negotiated and the din of shuffling feet, trucks slipping in and out, and the hum of electricity in tangled wires.  The (mostly female) vendors sat amongst growing mountains of produce; garlic, avocados, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, bags of oranges and limes, bushels of tomatoes, potatoes, and many fruits I didn’t even recognize, while delivery men scurried back and forth unloading pickup trucks, pushing handcarts or carrying boxes stacked up to eight high. 


    Pickup trucks waiting to be unloaded, on a side aisle at Central De Abastos.


    To say I was out of place would be quite the understatement, and even with all the activity, it was difficult to remain anonymous.  The market is a novel site for more adventurous urban tourists, but after dark even locals would steer clear unless they were buying, selling, looking for trouble, or all of the above.  I’m trying to be descriptive, not in an effort to sound poetic, but because I resisted the urge to flash my camera around in the scene described above (except for the single photo above), the one piece of advice I did take from my local friends.  The one I didn’t: You would be crazy or stupid to risk going at night. 


    Later, when I was safely back in my downtown hostel, I wondered if it was inevitable that a wholesale market should diminish the apparent economic prosperity of a neighborhood?  Who (that could afford not to) would want to live close to a distribution hub that operates around the clock?  Many of the factors that make the market viable as a wholesale hub make it less appealing as a retail outlet, at least for most people living within the city.  Like a stadium, a wholesale market requires cheap land, lots of space and easy access to highway infrastructure (for ease of deliveries), it can be an intimidating scale, noisy, crowded, and unless you’re buying in bulk, maybe not worth the effort.  To give you a sense of what the neighborhood around De Abastos is like, let’s just say, if Charlie Sheen asked me where to go for a good time in Oaxaca, I would send him here…

    Without the wholesale market, however, the entire system would be entirely dysfunctional.  With few exceptions, the venders at the few public markets within the urban center, and countless more in the valleys, are not farmers themselves. They are locally known as “revenders” (“vender” is the Spanish verb “to sell”).  Almost everything comes through De Abastos first, and is then distributed by independent, entrepreneurial revenders in the various smaller scale mercados (market halls) and tianguis (traditional outdoor markets). 


    Inside Central De Abastos, during the day.


    Most Mexicans are unimpressed by labels like “organic” or “local”, and to be honest, much of what you buy in the markets is neither, depending of course on your definitions.  I bought a couple apples in one of the smaller urban markets, the Mercado Sanchez Pasquez, only to find out later that they were grown in Washington State.  For public markets in the United States to function more significantly as components in food distribution system, to even think of competing with supermarkets on price and convenience, Americans may have to give up the romantic expectation that buying from your local farmer means shaking the hand that sows the fields.  As farmers markets continue to expand in the Unite States, more and more farmers are hiring outside people to work their stand, so the ‘direct connection’ is already being sacrificed out of necessity.  Nonetheless, the ‘story’ of food will remain one of its most important marketable qualities, whether you’re buying in a public market or a grocery store. 


    The person in this photo (taken in the urban Sanchez Pasquez mercado in Oaxaca), as well as all of the apples, originally come from the United States. 


    If anything is grown organically in Oaxaca, it's likely done out of economic necessity (some people can't afford fertilizer), rather than concern for the environment, health, or some moral superiority complex.  Those who do use fertilizer, might buy it in Ocotlan... 

    In the Oaxacan public markets, you can be almost positive that your purchase, whether it is meat, cheese, produce, or organic honey, has come through the Central De Abastos.  Unlike the origin labels that have become popular in some specialty grocers and co-ops in the Bay Area, few items are labeled in Mexico.  Most of the staple crops (corn and beans especially) are grown in Puebla, the Mexican state immediately north of Oaxaca, well known for its large-scale industrial agriculture.  Citrus and tropical fruits often come from Chiapas, the southern-most state on the border of Guatemala, or from Veracruz on the east coast.  The unique gastronomy of Oaxaca is reflected in its geographic centrality, located within reasonable proximity to a diverse system of agricultural resources.  Despite this centrality, however, the Oaxaca’s food system is entirely dependent on a highly distributed and independent system of markets and venders that operate hierarchically, moving down the chain from the Central De Abastos. 


    Meat and produce sold at the Llano Park Friday market (below) in Oaxaca City.  This market most closely resembles the typical American farmers market in physical structure.  Except that you have more than one type of each vendor, so prices are significantly more competitive, and most of the food items have come through Central De Abastos the morning before the market occurs.


    Such a system may not be viable in most of the United States for a number of reasons.  For instance, there is much less federal regulation on food safety standards and business licenses for independent processors or resellers; the informal economy is created by both entrepreneurial zeal (typical of Mexico), but also from poverty; and the system is an evolved and established tradition in Oaxacan culture.  The market is a part of daily life, serving as much for the distribution of local gossip as food.  While it would be naïve to assume that such a system could be replicated in external form without the underlying social structures that create it, the markets of Oaxaca operate within an intricate spatial organization that can be compared at a level of abstraction with other systems.  The Bay Area, for example, already has three wholesale food markets, although none of them function at their potential capacity.  And none of them operate as hybrids that include retail, so they tend to be inactive for most of the day.  I will explore the Bay Area in further detail later this year, but it will continue to be a reference case as I document market systems throughout the world. 


    Ps. This will be the first of a series of rapid posts related to my experiences in Oaxaca.  The next up will be a manuscript of an interview I conducted with Jose Manuel Nunez Banuet, the Director of Economic Development for the municipality of Oaxaca, regarding his role in the city's project to renovate several of it's urban markets.  Thanks for tuning in.


    Pps.  Also, I've been working on some (what I think are really interesting) time lapse films (with sound!) of a few of the markets, but I haven't found an internet connection fast enough to facilitate an upload.  I sat around my hostel in Oaxaca one day for almost 6 hours waiting for a single video, before it got stuck around 75%.  This cafe where I'm currently writing from in Mexico City seems like a winner, so maybe I'll bring a book one day, and just wait...


    Ppps.  Last thing, I promise.  Since people keep asking, I might as well note that all the writing, photos, and graphics are original unless otherwise stated. 

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About this Blog

I am a graduate M.Arch/MLA student at UC Berkeley, and grateful recipient of the 2011-2012 John K. Branner Fellowship, an annual traveling fellowship awarded by the UC Berkeley Department of Architecture. I will spend the 2012 calendar year visiting public food markets in major cities on 5 continents to research the relationship between markets and the infrastructure of food systems, focusing on the cultural and urban design implications of local economies. This blog will follow my journey...

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