Why do we have cities and towns?
While medieval towns were established for a variety of reasons, including defense or access to key resources such as water or arable land, it is important not to overlook trade. In addition to specialization after the beginning of agriculture, geography and topography brought travelers together in many places. The confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers to form the Ohio River practically guaranteed that there would be a settlement there in the future, very close to where the skyscrapers of Pittsburgh now stand. Anyone traveling from any one of those waterways to either of the other two would likely meet others there making trips in similar or opposing directions, creating a natural place to stop, exchange information about travel and perhaps swap supplies.
Once a certain number of people agree that on a certain day, at a certain time, in a specific place, that goods will be sold or traded- an Informal Market has appeared. Go back far enough in history and you will find whole cities that emerged around the increasing formalization (permanent structures for trade, accompanying space for residents who work as traders) of some of these Informal Markets, while other such markets disappeared.
A great example of a market that became the heart of a city is Krakow, Poland, which has been reported in written records as a center of trade since before the year 1000. Krakow’s Rynek Główny (Main Market Square) is the largest public square in Europe, with its centerpiece being the Cloth Hall, where linen was sold in the current building as early as 1555 and is still sold there today. (Pictures below are all my own from a trip DW and I took to Poland in 2006)
Adjacent to the Cloth Hall is the 14th-century St. Mary’s Basilica, which replaced an earlier church on the same site from the 13th-century. The smaller buildings to the right now contain stores on the bottom floor and homes and offices above, which is probably similar to uses for the last several centuries.
Another more recent example in Poland of an Informal Market becoming formalized that we were lucky to see is the now-defunct Russian Market of Warsaw, which was unfortunately destroyed to make way for a new soccer stadium for the European Football Championship 2012 tournament. In 1989, the City of Warsaw leased a previously abandoned Soviet-era stadium to a private company who turned it into the largest open-air market in Europe. The market over time came to have a reputation for selling black-market Russian military goods, liquor, pirated media, and more mundane items such as clothing. By the time we visited in 2006, the market did not seem particularly dangerous in any way, but it had become so large that while the old stadium still held many vendors, it had also spilled beyond the stadium walls into a network of streets and paths reaching to the nearest bus station, creating a 1/3-mile long line of commerce.
To me, the most interesting thing about this fascinating piece of Warsaw was that it had become so routinized into the life of the neighborhood and the city — the market definitely carried many goods that were not being reported for sale, even if they were legal goods. We found out about it by reading the Lonely Planet guidebook on Poland. The City of Warsaw had more or less turned a crumbling stadium with a sketchy past into an attraction, albeit a mostly local one, complete with its own bus station. I think it’s fair to say that when your Informal Market has a bus station, it’s no longer an informal affair.
Both the Krakow and Warsaw examples indicate what mature Informal Markets can look like, the former completely formalized and integrated into the very core of the city, and the latter reaching a mature state in which it is still not part of the full, legal, traditional city economy but is still nevertheless a safe, established, and accepted community institution.
The reason this is interesting to me is that a lot of communities in the US are almost hard-wired to stomp out Informal Markets (and I’m talking about markets of legitimate goods, not pirated DVDs, etc) anywhere they spring up without thinking about what they are doing or why. But Carrboro is pretty good at tapping the potential of Informal Markets for making our community a more vibrant and interesting place to live, and this characteristic of the town is something we might consider how to capitalize on. Tune in tomorrow for a discussion of the Informal Markets of Carrboro.