Iconic West Side Market Reopens After Fire

Matan Zeimer

This first part of a two-part series takes a look at the produce section of the West Side Market. Next week, part two will take readers inside the main market space at the start of business hours.

On the northwest corner of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue in the neighborhood of Ohio City sits a large building home to the West Side Market, an icon of Cleveland. Its tall clock tower, crowned with a green-tinted dome, makes the light-orange brick, marble and concrete building identifiable from many blocks away.

Before the 7 a.m. opening of the marketplace, a handful of cars already sit, emitting wisps of exhaust, as they wait with their engines idling in the parking lot on the northeast side of the building. By 8:30 a.m., this free parking lot will be full. The top of the hour brings the sound of car doors being slammed shut by a few eager shoppers.

The voice of a woman standing at the crosswalk cuts through the silence of the dimly lit morning. She is selling the Cleveland Street Chroniclefor $1.25 cents, asking every passerby, “Help the homeless?” This monthly paper, exclusively dealing with issues related to homelessness, is produced primarily by members of the local homeless community and is sold here every day the market is open.

One middle-aged couple hastily walks to the doors of the produce section, escaping the cold winter air. Sherry Glenn is on her way to place an order with one of the meat vendors for pork tenderloin, in preparation for a large family dinner.

“We come here because the food tastes good, and I don’t like buying Giant Eagle pork,” she said with her hands deep in her coat pockets. “It just doesn’t taste as good.”

“Freshness”, “flavor” and “local” are the three words used most often by customers to describe the market, and are also why they are drawn here.

To enter the market from the northeast or northwest parking lots, you must first pass through the produce aisles, which hold over 100 vendors selling products from around the world. A variety of thick accents can be heard throughout the corridor as prices, deals and sample offerings are repeatedly chanted at customers.

Ray Figueroa, a produce vendor who has worked at the market for close to 13 years, is convinced that the significant differences between buying from these vendors and a large supermarket are the prices and freshness.

“Our stuff tastes fresher because the stores go buy theirs in bulk. Us, we buy our stuff fresh every single week. I mean any, fresher you’d have to go get it out of the ground.”

Most of the produce sold at the market is bought from the Northern Ohio Food Terminal on East 37th Street and Woodland Avenue in Cleveland. The terminal gets large-scale deliveries of every kind of produce imaginable from around the globe. During the summer months it is easier to buy local products because they are in season, but during the winter, a lot of the produce comes from California and South America.

Not all of the produce can be found at the terminal, or at any other market.

“Some other stands sell some unique items. Like, some lady around the corner, she sells things that you don’t see every day, and there’s another guy over here who sells apples no one in the market sells, only him. They got some weird names, but they’re really good,” said Figueroa, as he tossed empty boxes into the alley behind his stand.

“It’s all in how you treat your customers. If you treat your customers real good and then what they see is what they get, they’re gonna come back to you,” Figueroa said.

For Melissa De Caro, her work in the produce section of the market is a family tradition.

“It’s a lifestyle. It raised generations of my family, so it’s more than just a job — it’s part of my life,” said De Caro.

The produce stand has been located at stalls 65 and 67 since her grandparents started it in 1934. Now the boss of the stand, she has been working at the market since she was eight years old. Her nephew Justin works at the stand and all eight of her siblings have worked there for some period of time.

“There are only three original stands left outside, 49 through 51, 31 through33, and us,” she adds proudly.

In the alley between the doors of the produce aisle and the main market building, Quincy Barker works to pick up the boxes being thrown from the vendor’s roll-up doors. Barker, wearing work gloves and a heavy sweatshirt, stacks the boxes in the bed of his mini-truck to be hauled away. He has been working at the market for nine years.

“Well, I work here, gotta make a living, but what it means to me is that its an old building that’s been around for years so it brings a lot of people together,” he said. According to Barker, the market has experienced a lull in its number of customers.

“I think it’s the economy. I think people, they want a deal now, and they need it fast. If they don’t see it, they’re going to keep moving,” he said.

Despite this supposed drop in popularity, the past two weeks have been a strong signal of the market’s importance to the community of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.

On the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 30, the market was forced to close after a fire caused major damages to several vendor stalls in the main market space. Fortunately, the building was saved from extensive damages, but cleanup crews had to remove large amounts of soot throughout the market. According to News Channel 5, “It cost approximately $276,000 to clean up the facility over 13 days.”

The produce building, which stands separate from the larger market house, was reopened on Friday, Feb. 1. Produce vendors have been at their stalls throughout the cleanup process, but business can’t be the same without the availability of the entire market.

The Cleveland icon will be fully reopened to shoppers this Monday, Feb. 18, after the longest closure since its establishment more than 100 years ago.