Morning at the Farmers Market

As a massive shopping mall rises around them, Farmers Market habitues like Paul Mazursky, Selma the Mayor, Dr. Helen, and The Loudmouth hold court
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Dawn’s barely broken, and Magee’s donkey, like the rest of the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, is groaning awake. The weak sun penetrates a Plexiglas roof to warm its wooden back; the donkey gets to kicking its hind legs atop an aged horse-radish grinder. “With a kick like a Missouri mule,” Magee’s deli advertises its Missouri-grown horseradish. The hand-carved mascot—which does hail from Missouri and could pass for a horse or a mule but in the contrary universe of the 67-year-old Market is definitely a donkey—verges on collapse after half a century of a hard labor.

Magee’s 1917 peanut butter processor is at it as well, churning its contents with the patience of Job. An All-Pack automatic stringing machine, obsolete for 20 years but still whirring at Marconda’s Meats, binds rump roast while a butcher teases ears and a snout out of a tray of ground pork and inserts black olives for eyes. At Littlejohn’s English Toffee House, Michael Graves is into his second hour of stirring a copper kettle of butter cream. Outside her Gift and Gadget Nooks, Shirley Thomas sets out tchotchkes for the tourist traffic—personalized California license plates and souvenir patches of purple Buddhas and bug-eyed aliens in VW vans.

With its cockeyed passageways and clapboard stalls, its scents of several hundred foodstuffs mingling with the chatter of several dozen nations, its handmade signs in the shapes of Hungarian rye, plain cake doughnuts, flaming chiles, and arrows and arrows pointing every which way toward root beer and meatballs and schwarma, the Farmers Market is as chaotic and as wedded to unpredictability as Los Angeles itself. In the city that surrounds it, these attributes can curdle into frustration and anger, willful ignorance and throw-up-your-hands helplessness. On the Market’s tiny stage, all becomes tolerable, even charming.

At 6 a.m., when this stage is largely bare—when the feral, night-prowling cats have ascended the roofs for their slumbers and obese sparrows wheel about the milky-lime tabletops—the Market shares none of L.A.’s early-morning desolation. The wheezing of the ancient machinery, the sizzle of doughnuts bobbing in oil, the ministrations of practiced hands making pyramids of guava—these are the last-minute rumblings of the stage crew before resumption of the day’s drama.

As they stream along Fairfax or 3rd Street, the Market’s villagers are just so many nondescript players, L.A. flotsam. Once they cross the Markers threshold, they are recast as main characters whose talents and flaws are as familiar to the other regulars as Hamlet’s are to students of Shakespeare. The Market has granted them only 50,000 square feet to strut upon; its four walls afford no wiggle room. But these restrictions, compressing the drama, make it more expansive.

Until last year the Market could rely on powerful outlying fortifications. With a thousand or so parking spaces, its enormous outer ring of asphalt served as a buffer against development. To the north the Dell shopping center, designed in matching clapboard, had since the ’40s protected the Market from chain-store onslaught. To the east the Gilmore Bank, a masterwork of ’50s modernism, functioned as a bulwark as well as the repository of the village’s profits. An independent, it had resisted the merger boom that had consumed Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

Now the Dell shopping center, the Gilmore Bank, and half the asphalt parking lot are gone. The Gilmore family, owners of the Market since its inception, have been the lords of this realm since the 1870s, and it was their decision to tear down these obstacles to their development plan. The A.F. Gilmore Company will build another bank, but the ’50s structure is in a landfill somewhere. A Cost Plus World Market will replace the Dell. And at the Farmers Market, where you can still speak to the fishmonger or the corn grower who’s named his small business after himself, Johnny Rockets has joined Starbucks. All too familiar elsewhere, here these businesses are a dose of future shock.

Since 1934 the Market has held off the future like a medieval village mindful of marauders. Despite 12 entrance gates, its walled-off world is as unwelcoming to outsiders as it is intoxicating and convivial to those within. Now those siege engines it always feared have arrived. Fifty feet away, the cranes and the cement mixers loom like catapults as they lay the foundations of an open-air shopping center called the Grove. Spanning 575,000 square feet of national brand names, the Grove upon its March 2002 completion will be able to swallow ten Farmers Markets and still have room for dessert.

The Market isn’t about to suffer physical death. No bulldozer is about to attack its stalls and patios; the Gilmore Company has argued that the Grove, by attracting crowds with stores like the Gap and Banana Republic, will shore up what it considers the Market’s shaky financial condition. But it is just as likely that the Grove—so beyond the Market’s human scale—will weaken and overwhelm. It is a fragile time, this last Grove-free season the Market will ever know. As the new construction grows too massive to ignore, the Market’s pleasures will be tempered by the rumors and the reassurances that preoccupy so many villages once word arrives that hordes are on the march.

Within the Market’s confines this morning, packs of The Price Is Right contestants are the most conspicuous invaders. On furlough from the CBS studios to the north, they swarm the Market’s West Patio. They settle into folding chairs along side sluggish-eyed kids nursing hangovers with espresso from the French Crepe Company. The Market, like all villages, has districts. The West Patio is where the youthful hipsters have rooted. The ahi salad of Kokomo Cafe, the blackened catfish of the Gumbo Pot, the nonfat decaf lattes of Starbucks, are their manna. The West Patio teems at breakfast and lunch but is desolate in the hours between. It lacks the social cohesion of the East Patio, home to Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts and Patsy’s Pizza, which attract retirees and story-tellers who place no time limits on their banter, so the tables are mobbed most of the day.

The Mazursky Crowd functions as the Market’s cultural center. Formed in the mid ’80s, this assembly of filmmakers, actors, writers, and artists has emerged as L.A.’s answer to the Algonquin Round Table. A Hollywood pasha in an Academy Awards 2001 baseball jacket, director Paul Mazursky is busy suppressing today’s challenge to his comic supremacy. Painter Charles Bragg, who has arrived in an antique stovepipe hat, looks at his colleagues through bulging gag-store eyeballs. He’s waiting for a reaction, and Mazursky’s more than happy to comply. “Why are you wearing those glasses?” Mazursky sighs, like a headmaster chastising his most tiresome pupil. “Is there a reason?”

“You know, he’s so supportive,” Bragg gripes. “You come here and try to entertain them, but no gratitude whatsoever. And I laugh at everything he says.” Mazursky draws a bead on Bragg’s stovepipe. “Did you buy the hat at the shop down there?” he asks, nodding toward a souvenir stall along the way. Bragg is indignant. “That happens to be my grandfather’s, who died in the Civil War to free the slaves. Or was it the Bataan Death March? And my uncle was the guy who asked Rosa Parks to get up so he could sit down on that bus. We did our part!”

“Ayoo doo, doo dee ooh,” Mazursky chants, looking at a table where three women surround a spiritual leader in bagwan’s robes; an open laptop gives a faint radiance to his untamed beard. “He’s got a new maiden,” Mazursky says. “Did you see their computer? That’s new, too.” For months the Crowd has been speculating on what faith this seer might be spreading. One disciple approached Mazursky because she had made a short film and wanted advice, but gave few clues.

The Mazursky Crowd spends the morning discussing the merits of Grey Goose vodka, the dearth of books on Balthus, the state of sanitation in the bathrooms at Nate ’n Al. Mazursky all the while offers commentary on the Market populace like Army Archerd reporting the arrivals at some lunatic Oscar show. “There’s Gabby Hayes, the cowboy,” he says, surveying a middle-aged nomad with a Stetson, hula shirt, potbelly, and distracted gaze. When a blonde in stiletto heels and a tight sweater walks past the seafood stall, Mazursky is apoplectic. “Goddess,” he says. “It’s like Diana of the Hunt. She’s starring in a new series: Kill Jews.”

However sophisticated their experience, Bragg and Mazursky, writers David Freeman and Leon Capetanos, and producer Marty Elfand are Farmers Market provincials. They wouldn’t think of gathering too far south of Bob’s or west of the Coffee Corner. They trickle in around 8:30 and by 10 they are gone. Bragg sketches for the others the spectacle he saw here one noon, distant as Guam. “It’s just a bunch of people from all over the world, starving and hungry,” he says. “You don’t relate to it. ‘What are these people doing in my place?’ ”

And what is that bulldozer doing outside their place? “The weird irony is that the Market is a mall,” Freeman says. “It’s sort of a proto-mall. What gives it grace is that it wasn’t planned as such. It evolved. And each merchant, save that wretched Starbucks, actually is an owner-operator, not a franchisee. There’s continuity here, which I will be sorry to see go. It’s this idea of public welfare and private benefit, and the landed gentry being obligated to balance the two. It’s an obligation I don’t think the Gilmores feel. They’ll be richer for the Grove. But the rest of us will be the poorer.”

Less than a hundred yards Northeast of where Freeman delivers his eulogy, the Gilmore adobe presides. Built in 1852, the house and the surrounding land have weathered many upheavals since Arthur F. Gilmore bought a 256-acre chunk of Rancho La Brea in 1870 to expand his dairy operation. The discovery of oil doomed Gilmore’s dairy farm. His son Earl leveraged the family business into the largest independent oil distributor in the West. By World War II the Gilmore lion symbol graced 1,200 service stations, but the adobe witnessed the death of the Gilmore Oil Company, too, when Earl was muscled out by two of his chief suppliers. The Mobil Pegasus supplanted the Gilmore lion.

In the adobe’s enclosed yard, the roosters’ cackles penetrate the master bedroom. There Gilmore president Hank Hilty works under portraits of his great-grandfather Arthur and grandfather Earl. Partial to off-the-rack tweed jackets and novelty ties, Hilty resembles neither a gentleman rancher nor a captain of industry. As a toddler he tore around the Market stalls, but the 53-year-old A.F. Gilmore Company president spent most of his early adult life distancing himself from his family. He enlisted in the navy, not as an ensign but as an ordinary sailor, earned an accounting degree instead of an M.B.A., married and fled east until his mother’s fatal illness forced his return. “There were no serious intentions of ever staying on,” he says, “but it just caught me.”

In his day-to-day management Hilty is as much potentate as company president. Tenants must tithe, surrendering 10 percent of their gross profits to the Gilmore Company. All except Kokomo, Starbucks, and Johnny Rockets are on 30-day renewable leases. Butcher shops and bakeries that opened 50 years ago are vulnerable to banishment, although the Gilmores have seldom exercised the right.

Starbucks and Johnny Rockets notwithstanding, Hilty says he will continue to favor independent operators at the Market, “tenants who come here with their life savings and put all their efforts and interests in their operation.” He doesn’t anticipate letting in other chains. “It would be easy to do, but it would diminish the character and quality of the Market.”

For the past 20 years Hilty has led the Gilmore Company’s bid to transform the family’s homestead into a retail mecca. In the early ’80s he championed an “electronic mall” that was supposed to entice Intel and Microsoft to open stores. In the late ’80s Hilty proposed a more traditional mall; the deal collapsed when his Chicago partner dropped out. As these plans foundered, the L.A. City Council, pressured by tenants’ associations, sliced the maximum allowable size of any future development from 2 million square feet to 640,000.

“In a lot of ways,” Hilty says, “we created our own monster by perpetuating the Market. If it was more typical, it would have probably expired many, many years ago. But because of the interest that the Gilmore Company has, we’ve allowed it to perpetuate, and people don’t—I don’t think they appreciate it enough.” Hilty’s argument is hard to dismiss. Southern California’s landscape is littered with the rubble of ostrich hatcheries and amusement piers that brought joy to the city but, alas, not enough revenue to their operators, while the Farmers Market has survived. Hilty is probably right when he argues that the Market itself would have been torn down without debate had it been the property of a modern real estate trust answerable only to stockholders, instead of sympathetic descendants of his great-grandfather. “You wouldn’t have the Market in a minute,” Hilty says. “I can’t think of any real estate-savvy person who would buy any kind of commercial enterprise that had a 30-day lease. There’s no security in that.”

The Grove, according to Hilty, will wake the Market from its financial torpor. Although he won’t provide hard figures, he contends that revenues have slipped no more than 25 percent since its postwar heyday. He’s counting on Grove customer runoff to help reverse that decline. He bristles at the notion that the current project was the most profitable course. “There are other things we could have done,” he says, “that would be far more financially viable for the company.”

After our conversation Hilty takes me on a tour of the adobe’s grounds. The roosters shriek with self-regard. His great-grandmother began raising fowl on the land, selling the eggs for pin money. I ask him if the roosters have gotten agitated, what with all the new construction. “No,” he says. “They don’t sense anything except their well-being.”

Bob Tusquellas breaks apart a glazed raised doughnut and waves a moist half beneath my eye. “See all the little holes in there?” says as the dough puckers with exposure to the atmosphere. “See how those holes are opening up? That’s from the yeast, and it’s all natural. That’s from using a rolling pin and waiting three hours for the dough to rise. On an overcast day you don’t make it the same as you would when it’s 85 degrees. You use the same flour and everything, but the technique is completely different to get the same consistency.”

Tusquellas, who has neatly parted salt-and-pepper hair and wears button-down shirts and striped ties beneath his baker’s apron, owns Bob’s Coffee & Doughnuts and the Market’s two seafood stands. He says he’s never met a baker who wasn’t a little crazy. “They’re like painters,” he says. “Kind of wild guys, with definitely that artistic flair.” Thirty years ago Tusquellas shocked his economics professor at Berkeley Graduate School of Business when he told him he was no longer considering a position in operations research at the Ford Motor Company. Instead, he was taking over Arnold’s Donuts at the Farmers Market, where, as the son of butcher Johny Tusquellas, he spent his youth.

At the Market, second- and third-generation merchants are common. Michael Graves, the master of Littlejohn’s English Toffee House, served his small-business apprenticeship in his parents’ Market stationery store. Shirley Thomas’s parents arrived hawking handicrafts three months after the Market opened. At Thomas’s four gift stores, an urban archaeologist can unearth artifacts that would be the envy of any swap meet: a disco mug whose handle is a leering bearded bachelor in a ’70s leisure suit, a mink-lined toothpick holder for the man who “has everything,” a souvenir patch of the Market itself, whose packaging dates it as far back as the 1980 Olympics. Beside Bo’s Doughnuts, Filomena D’Amore carries on her father’s recipes at Patsy’s Pizza, while Scott Bennett persists with his late uncle’s Bennett’s Ice Cream, building a Fudge-Brownie Monster.

Of all the merchants, Phyllis Magee enjoys the richest inheritance. Her mother-in-law, Blanche Magee, was the first Market entrepreneur to sell prepared food. Some weeks after the 1934 opening, Blanche noticed that the farmers had plenty of oranges and apples to sell but were in serious need of the Magee’s ham sandwiches she was already selling downtown. “She was always very curious,” Phyllis says, smiling beneath frosted blond hair. “We told her she was just plain nosy.” Blanche eventually laid the Market’s first water and electrical lines, while Phyllis’s late husband introduced tables and chairs in the ’40s.

Phyllis can be found behind the counter every morning, smiling to the tourists and calling everyone “honey” whether they deserve it or not. She has plenty of seasoned help to run the peanut butter and corned beef depots. Jose Ruiz has sliced the cold cuts and operated the horseradish machine for 35 years; Romero Avalos first repaired Magee’s peanut butter churner when he was 25 and is still on the job at 57. Phyllis’s bond with her customers goes beyond several tons of ground horseradish and more than 100,000 pounds of peanut butter a year. She’s not overly mired in nostalgia; she thinks the Market is in need of a boost and maybe the shopping center supply it. She’s a “big mall shopper” who can’t wait for the Grove’s new Nordstrom. But with the Gilmore family’s increasing emphasis on the bottom line, she already senses something vital has been lost. “In the ’70s and ’80s the Market was still a very successful business,” Phyllis says. “But I just felt something in common with them, some warmth, I think, and now I think it’s very different. It’s strictly business now.”

Noon, and the Market is in full fury. Behind its walls, a profusion of food and noise, wit and compassion—the medieval village that thinks it can get away with decreeing every day a feast day.

There’s Selma White, one of the Market’s three self-proclaimed mayors. We’re lucky she’s around. She spends so many hours at her table that the Market’s bounty has begun to look as familiar as the contents of her refrigerator, so occasionally she leaves for lunch. There’s Marshall Stewart, Selma’s chief lieutenant, who played Arthur the Zookeeper in Escape from the Planet of the Apes and doesn’t need a cell phone, since Bennett’s Ice Cream takes his calls. There’s Marshall’s roommate, Gene Walz, a retired porn star, in skimpy shorts and a tank top, who is administering a half-hour massage to an elderly Italian lady’s left thigh and who once yelled something so salacious about another dowager that a young woman turned to him and said, “I hope when I’m old someone will talk to me like that.” There’s Elyse Couvillion, a writer-director who has been here the last eight months composing a cyberpunk Romeo and Juliet on her laptop. And there’s Jack Celnik, who survived three years at Auschwitz to spend 40 at the Market.

Jack, it turns out, can paint his own portrait of the Market’s passing humanity worthy of Sholem Aleichem. “That’s Shnorrer, the beggar,” he says, indicating an aged man whose glazed eyes are always zeroing in on leftovers. “He checks the tables if there’s something to salvage,” Jack says with a shrug. “He has money, and everybody knows it.” He moves on to the Captain, a Hungarian emigre with a cheap yachting cap plastered to his head. Then to the Nut (“There’s something wrong with him, I couldn’t tell you what. He makes faces. He yells”) and the Loudmouth, a wizened man in huge aviators who bellows through missing teeth.

The Market has its more prosaic characters: the CBS technicians, the slackers and trust-fund babies talking Eames and Cassavetes, the construction workers building the Grove. Japanese students in brass-button uniforms make a run on Moishe’s chicken kabob; tourists from Duluth jostle tourists from Rotterdam. By all logic the Market should be a tourist trap, where visitors gawk a few hours before proceeding to Rodeo Drive, and of course it is that. But the Market attracts contradictions as well as eccentrics. So it is also a social center for many who are citizens of the Market first and residents of Los Angeles second. Because the tables and folding chairs are all held in common, not tied to one merchant, you can transport an oyster poor boy from the Gumbo Pot across the Market to the shadow of Bryan’s Pit Bar-B-Cue and place it beside a tray of Sushi A Go-Go—or a leftover slice of meat loaf brought by one of the alter kockers who treat the Market as their personal picnic grounds. Matrons from Bel-Air enjoy the company of widows and divorcees desperate for the next social security check. Lunch at the Market is as close to a communal experience as Los Angeles will enjoy.

Stephane Strouk, owner of the Mr. Marcel Cheese Shop and the French Crepe Company, arrived from Paris in 1993. Lost and lonely, he realized no matter how many years he stayed he couldn’t connect to a city with no public life to connect to. Clinging to the Market, he pleaded with the Gilmores to rent him a niche where they were holding the trash so he could launch a creperie. “When you walk in L.A.,” Strouk says, “you have the feeling that you are nothing. Nobody looks at you. But here it’s warm even if it’s cold. The customers who have sat here for years and years forget they are in L.A.”

Southern California’s most organic and most genuine places are inauthentic constructs, but they spring from the imagination of a few authentic characters. We have Disneyland, built by Walt Disney and the Imagineers; Abbot Kinney’s Venice, carved from man-made canals; society matron Christine Sterling’s reworking of Olvera Street downtown; and CityWalk, architect Jon Jerde’s vision of L.A. collapsed into a couple of carefree blocks.

The Farmers Market owes its existence to two Depression-era oddballs: Roger Dahlhjelm and Fred Beck. Neill Beck, Fred’s 96-year-old widow, delves into this history from the air-conditioned comfort of her Laguna Hills condo.

In 1933 Dahlhjelm approached Fred Beck with a cockamamy idea for solving the Depression through the mass sale of “Prosperity Cakes.” The pyramid scheme went nowhere. Dahlhjelm’s next idea was a colonial Williamsburg of the West, where tourists could gawk at furniture makers and rug masters plying their crafts. Earl Gilmore, president of the Gilmore Company, balked at this grand plan but agreed to provide them land for one of its component parts. The Farmers Market began as 18 ramshackle stalls of salvaged wood and canvas built on a field of grass and mud.

All the Market’s charms can be traced to its founders. Dahlhjelm was a committed anachronist. Against the Model T and the Pierce Arrow he tried selling Stanley steam-powered automobiles. “He hated new things on cars,” Neill Beck remembers. “He once bought the very most expensive Chrysler, and the first thing he did was have all the electric windows changed to cranks.” Dahlhjelm infused the Market with his resistance to change. In the marbled beauty of its meats, the freshness of its vegetables and breads, you can still sense Dahlhjelm policing the aisles half a century ago, seizing a substandard pineapple or headless chicken and flinging it onto the asphalt.

Dahlhjelm brought nostalgia and his iron will, but without underemployed ad writer Fred Beck the Market might have been a dour place. On opening day, July 14, 1934, Beck and a friend painted “Meet Me at 3rd and Fairfax” on the side of a decrepit Ford roadster. They drove to the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire, took the car out of gear, pulled the parking brake, and feigned forlorn looks as they peered under the hood and a crowd gathered. A policeman told them to get the jalopy out of the way; they apologized and said the car just wouldn’t run. Stalling, they extended precious advertising time. “We got a lot of free mileage and publicity,” Neill says. “I knew somebody had to come to see these nuts.” Today “Meet Me at 3rd and Fairfax” entices passersby in backlit cranberry neon.

During the next 12 years Beck’s promotions matured with the Market. He wrote an advertorial called “Farmers Market Today,” which appeared daily on page 4 of the Los Angeles Times. In the ’40s Neill took over the column, and rarely has advertising reached quirkier heights. Instead of plugging the Market, Neill might write about baby-sitting Paulette Goddard’s monkeys or her niece’s dubious future as a pianist: “A mover of pianos, eventually maybe—but a mover of audiences, to desperation, maybe too.”

By the late ’40s, after he lost control of his oil company, Earl Gilmore ousted Dahlhjelm. Beck resigned to write a novel, leaving Neill to soldier on with the column for another four years. Neill ran into legal trouble when she concocted a story that had Ginger Rogers smoking a cigarette. Gilmore told her that from then on, he wanted everyone quoted in the column to sign a release. “I just said, ‘Mr. Gilmore, it was a pleasure working for you,’ ” Neill recalls. “What worried me was that they might throw a big farewell luncheon for me. What shocked me was when he said he already had a column for tomorrow.”

She left the Farmers Market in 1954 and didn’t return until last year, two decades after her husband’s death. Hank Hilty, whom she had only known as an adorable child, invited her to the lunch his grandfather never gave her. She was awarded a pen, a T-shirt, a coffee mug, and a video of public-TV host Huell Howser scarfing down Bob’s doughnuts and Patsy’s pizza. But she’d outlived all the merchants, and the place rang hollow. “I didn’t feel it was my Market,” Neill says. ‘I’d look out, and there wasn’t a soul to speak to.”

We don’t build shopping centers,” goes Caruso Affiliated Holdings’ copyrighted slogan. “We build the center of town.”

How much less complicated this morality tale might be if the Market were besieged by the, big-box retail of the Glendale Galleria or the Beverly Center, if it had been built by a remote real estate consortium. Instead we have 42-year-old Rick Caruso, tan, in a subtle charcoal pin-striped suit and unflappably optimistic, who says the most fun he ever had as a developer was when he and a songwriter friend stayed up until three in the morning recording the Grove’s new theme song: “I’ll meet you at the Grove at Farmers Market Where every day the sky is oh so blue …”

Caruso’s enthusiasms are stamped in the Grove’s greenswards and bridges, fountains and main thoroughfare, and in the trolley that will leave from a five-story parking structure and wend its way past Banana Republic and Anthropologie toward the Market. Caruso and seven colleagues took a tour of American cities for inspiration. “We looked like the biggest bunch of fools,” he says, “because we were looking at the height of curbs, the amount of radius, the rhythm of the trees.” He drew from Rush Street in Chicago, SoHo in Manhattan. “Charleston and Savannah were really great templates,” he says. “We wanted stuff that has soul in it.” Caruso is targeting the area’s young and monied demographic, but he is also striving for the kind of happen-stance experience Dahlhjelm and Beck nurtured in 1934.

Before the blueprints and the structural steel, Caruso creates a fable for each of his projects. For the Commons at Calabasas he imagined a hilltop village in Tuscany. His back story for the Grove goes something like this: In the 1940s, a decade after the Farmers Market was launched, a thriving urban district called the Grove blossomed beside it. Like the Market, the Grove was a place for meeting and greeting, a place of energy and excitement. The Grove slowly fell into disrepair, but now, like so many other tarnished historic cores, it’s back in vogue.

Had Caruso built the Grove back in the ’40s, he might have produced something unanticipated and idiosyncratic. But the gargantuan scale of today’s shopping centers—their domination by mass retailers whose monolithic identity follows the dictates of global-marketing departments—weighs down the developer’s vision. After the vibrancy of Phyllis Magee and Stephane Strouk, it’s unsettling to hear Caruso talk about his corporate tenants as if they were human beings, explaining how “the Gap demanded adjacency next to the trolley” or that “the larger chains are very excited about being next to vendors who’ve been at the same location for 50 or 60 years.”

Caruso believes that the Market’s merchants and the Grove’s chains will reinforce each other: “I think it’s exciting for the small retailers who are there to have the Gaps and the Bananas and the Nordstroms that will be next to them driving business to them.” As for the Market’s longtime citizens, Caruso has two predictions. Either they’ll turn their backs on the new shopping center or they’ll come to see it as a new opportunity, a new environment. “I sort of envision them just looking out at the Grove,” Caruso says, “not being sure whether they’re going to put their toe in.”

How quickly the framework of the Grove has risen! From the vantage of the Market’s balcony on a summer evening, the elders of this village could counsel only surrender now. Sure, the Grove may be a fraction of the size of the Beverly Center, but rubbing up against the Markers tiny eastern battlement, the half-formed shopping center blots out the horizon. The Market itself seems to have shrunk, like a house sandwiched between skyscrapers.

How will the Market fare against such immensity, against an outcome it has staved off for so long? Perhaps in the crucible of the vast new development, its rambling passageways and weathered patios will become a sanctuary even more sorely needed. Maybe the Grove’s allure will drain it of patrons, or worse, it might become so overburdened by its role as the Grove’s de facto food court that the pleasant bustle of the lunch hour will give way to unbearable congestion. Maybe, despite all assurances, the Market itself will go the way of chains. Or just maybe the Market’s own compelling illogic will overwhelm the Grove itself.

Tonight Larry Robbins isn’t about to grasp at such straws. A musical and theatrical talent manager, he’s been coming to the Market since the ’60s. With the summer wind whipping napkins across empty chairs and tabletops, the sunlight dying against glass jugs of pomegranate and blueberry juice at Paul’s Juice and Salad Bar; with all the stalls shuttered and hushed voices piercing the shadows, nightfall on the East Patio can seem like the end of the world.

Larry, his linen shirt and gabardine slacks immaculate as always, worries about the ability of the regulars to even cross the street once the Grove opens. “They walk so slow. They can’t make it in time,” he says to his good friend Dr. Helen. A Market institution, she arrives each morning pushing a two-wheeled cart stuffed with plastic. She knows the names of every merchant’s child and grandchild and dispenses free medical advice. Larry defends the Dell as if it hadn’t been bulldozed more than a year ago, the first casualty of the new development. “Leave it alone?” he says.

“They had to do something with those stores over there,” Dr. Helen says. “You couldn’t go there, it smelled so. It was all condemned. It was flooded. It had sewage in there.”

“You know what it was?” Larry says. “It was a historical site. Re-re-re-store!” His eyes turn skyward. “You could tear it down, take the garbage away, and rebuild it back with the original material. You could keep it as a historic site.”

“A lot of those businesses,” Dr. Helen persists, “they were hurting.”

Such reasoning, even from Dr. Helen, can, not assuage Larry’s gloom. “Make a note,” he says. “Do you know what you also lose here? The light! Once they build it up, you’re not going to get light. That’s what makes the place. That’s what makes the place.”

Morning again. Magee’s donkey wobbles at the joints. It could hardly knock a toothpick half an inch, and still the animal rears its haunches and kicks, and kicks once more.

 

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