The publicity machine is in full swing at the Grand Central Market and the long lines at Egg Slut on the weekend are impressive. I was worried — and I wasn't alone — when news that the market was being updated was announced several months back, fearing that it might not only lose its characters, but its character. As more new hand-curated vendors take the place of older vendors, I'm not sure what the future holds but it's clear that prices are rising.
"This place used to be for the underdog," said one employee who was talking about the immigrant families that relied on the affordable food and produce as a lifeline to feed their families. "Management is making money, but people come here now — they can't afford to buy their children an ice cream that costs $5." McConnell's Ice Cream of Santa Barbara recently replaced Casa de Dulces, which was given two weeks to clear out.
The latest booth to bite the dust is Lupita's Seafood, where affordable ceviche and seafood lunches were popular among Latinos and hipsters. A few weeks ago, the Hawaiian barbeque stand disappeared over a weekend. The fruit seller across the way, where bananas are now selling for 59 cents a pound, much higher than their typical prices, told me that the vendor disappeared over a weekend.
Blake Sheldon, a waiter at Berlin Currywurst, said there used to be long lines at 5 pm of people buying food at half price from some of those affordable vendors — longer than the lines of hipsters at Egg Slut on a Sunday morning these days. "Yeah," Sheldon said, "I know people who were afraid to come here. I guess change is good, the place is cleaner now, but it also hurts a lot of people." Months ago, I spoke with Joseph Shuldiner who was hired to repurpose the Market for the new downtown crowd. He told me then that the idea was to preserve some of the old vendors but improve the quality of food available.
Tomas Martinez of Tacos Tumbras a Tomas said he is happy about the new customers coming into the market. But he is one of the more popular traditional vendors, so his stand seems safe for now. But as the gentrification proceeds, it seems like only a matter of time before those for whom the market really was a viable option for affordable food will be priced out.
In 1997, the Yellin family and investors who owned the Grand Central Market property received a huge bailout from the MTA and CRA to help make up for the loss of property value due to depressed downtown real estate. They were saved in part because the MTA thought that improvements to the market would encourage ridership on the subway. Now, though, once those subway riders arrive, there is less that they can afford. One hopes that, as the market continues to prosper, its owners will create a way to give back to the community that may no longer be able to afford to shop at the place it supported for so many years.
Two sidenotes: The pay toilet, which up until a month or so ago required a quarter to enter, has finally been replaced. Last week, a security guard was stationed outside the restrooms, which are located on the lower floor. The huge space is largely empty now. Shuldiner said he planned to create workshop areas for classes in baking and other DIY attractions for the hip crowd he is hoping to attract. As for parking, I spent about two hours in the market parking structure. I got a market validation and another validation from G and B coffee. That got me one free hour of parking, and an $8 parking tab which breaks down to $2 every 15 minutes after the first hour. Only hipsters can afford that.