The Detroit Eastern Market Transports Locals to a Pre-Industrial Era

The outdoor shopping experience occurs every Saturday year-round and blends its rich history with the city’s contemporary culture and grocers. Cover graphic by Ramona Wolff for Midstory.

Nestled in the heart of Detroit, the Eastern Market is an essential and historic fixture in the city and its metro area.  

The Eastern Market, located just northeast of downtown, is one of the busiest urban areas in the city and home to the largest open-air flowerbed market in the United States. On Saturday, the neighborhood transforms into a large-scale, bustling outdoor market brimming with produce and goods and draws up to 40,000 people.

While the number of visitors may not always reach this high, the market has long served an important role in the community.

Shoppers at Eastern Market in 2019. Image courtesy of Michael Barera via Wikimedia Commons.

Built in 1891, it’s one of the oldest outdoor markets in the United States with ties to Detroit’s industrialization. Sam Morykwas, who worked as the senior marketing manager for Eastern Market for seven years, said that before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of automobiles, Detroit had three major produce markets — Eastern, Western and Cadillac Square — which all consolidated into the contemporary Eastern Market. A plethora of reasons contributed to the closing of Western and Cadillac markets, including rats and the construction of freeways, according to Billy Wall-Winkel of the Detroit Historical Society.

In many cities like New York and Chicago, cars eliminated consumer need for accessible outdoor markets and the real estate was abandoned or developed into apartments and other commercial spaces, Morykwas said. Wall-Winkel also said that despite being known as the “Motor City,” Detroit residents still used streetcars and buses to access the Eastern Market.

So the Eastern Market resisted closure, eventually becoming one of the last of its kind. After World War II especially, it became a key source for the wholesale food industry, as more food processors and wholesalers moved to the area. The Eastern Market Historic District was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1978. 

The Eastern Market occupies a unique space because it has existed for nearly 130 years, Morykwas said. But as Detroit changes, the market has had to, too.

“It’s no secret that Detroit had hard times. Detroit is still emerging from those hard times. People like to say that the city’s back — it’s not. We’re getting there. But also, Eastern Market is one of the biggest victims of the city’s resurgence,” Wall-Winkel said.

Corporate development in the metropolitan area surrounding Eastern Market has pushed out “cultural touchstone” restaurants that are an essential arm of Eastern Market, Wall-Winkel said. The market’s physical real-estate is dwindling, but Wall-Winkel said it still attracts a lot of business on Detroit Lions game days and on the annual flower day. Wall-Winkel lived next to Eastern Market for a year and a half before COVID-19 struck. 

“I moved out of downtown because it was sad. But I would ride my bike through it every day on my way to work. And on my way home, I would stop at the grocer and I would get the onion suppers or whatever veggie we were eating,” Wall-Winkel said. “So while Eastern Market is changing, it’s still Eastern Market.”

Eastern Market, circa 1912. Image courtesy of Eastern Market.

More than 225 food and specialty businesses are located within the market district, selling all types of goods including produce, meat, spices, jams,  poultry and even vintage clothing.

But there’s much more to the market than just outdoor food stands; it offers a taste of  the community’s art and culture that has been its neighbor for generations.

“Our neighborhood wouldn’t be what it is without public art. So we’ve had to kind of innovate and create ways for our market to be viable in this new era, and there’s not a huge precedent for what that looks like,” Morykwas said.

Image courtesy of the Federal Design Bureau via Wikimedia Commons. 

The market has expanded to run multiple relevant community-focused programs throughout Metro Detroit. According to Morykwas, the Eastern Market partnership operates six to eight programs which address local challenges with non-traditional solutions. For example, one of the programs allows people to rent commercial kitchen space at lower rates, Morykwas said. 

The Eastern Market also hosts special events, such as its annual flower market in May, which yield large crowds. Since 1967, the market’s “Flower Day” has displayed over 15 acres of impressive flower selections.

“We have a huge presence of flower growers on the market. You can shop and find really anything you need,” Morykwas said. “[In 2021], I think we were well over 100,000 people in a day.”

The flower section at the Eastern Market in 2009. Image courtesy of Bill Whittaker via Wikimedia Commons.
Vegetables at the Eastern Market in 2017. Image by Logan Sander for Midstory.

The pandemic was instrumental in cementing the role of the market in grounding the community. Although it impacted the market like other local businesses, the Eastern Market has quickly recovered some of its former strength.

The market remained open during the 2020 pandemic so Detroit residents could still get their groceries, said Senior Marketing Manager for the Eastern Market Sam Morykwas.

“We took advantage of some USDA grant funds, and we ended up doing food box donations,” Morykwas said. “We were able to pay our farmers and some of the people who would regularly be sourcing to us who weren’t selling as well — we were able to pay them for their produce that they were growing.” 

In 2019, a development plan envisioned the growth of the district, including rezoning for businesses and traffic flow. According to Morykwas, including customers and residents in the growing process is key for Detroit.

Concept build-out of the Core Market as presented in a 2019 executive summary. Image courtesy of Eastern Market. 

People get attached to their experience with the market, their traditions and what they see as the market experience,” Morykwas said. “How do we kind of develop it in new ways without alienating the base of customers and without disrespecting the city’s history, and without losing food as sort of the central component?” 

With community at its core, the Eastern Market district has steadfastly provided a special environment for food, culture and business to thrive across eras and across cultures.

“Eastern Market is kind of a place where everyone can come,” Morykwas said. “It’s always a place of good energy and cross-cultural sharing. And all of that comes back to the people who are here every week, week in and week out.” 

Caitlin Evans and Emily Fischer contributed to this article.


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