Browsing The Ridge In Roxborough's Farmers Market, Plenty Of Hope - And No Yuppies

Posted: May 05, 1996

Bureaucrats and out-of-towners down steak sandwiches at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. Homemakers in designer shades sniff the daylilies at the Ardmore Farmers Market. Artists with attitude elbow tourists for pesto at the Manayunk Farmers Market.

And now come the gentle people of Roxborough tasting low-fat lasagna and browsing over poultry cuts at their very own farmers market.

That's Roxborough - as in the nothing-flashy, solidly middle-class, certainly not yuppified (and proud of it) part of town that straddles Ridge Avenue, or ``the Ridge,'' as it is called. Can a convention center, or at least a Gap outlet, be far behind?

Last November, in a move of great optimism and perhaps greater cheek but little publicity, the Roxborough Development Corporation, in conjunction with the Vanderbilt Property Management Co., opened a farmers market on the Ridge, between Dupont Street and Green Lane.

It's been slow going.

Though there are other farmers markets in the area - in Flourtown, Chestnut Hill, Germantown and Manayunk, to name a few - a phalanx of residents and businesspeople felt that a farmers market would help revitalize Roxborough's commercial core, which has hit the Main Street skids afflicting so many towns and neighborhoods.

``We all agreed a farmers market would be very suitable for the area,'' said Sam Miluzzo, president of the Roxborough Business Association and a motivating force behind the development. ``It fit nicely into the neighborhood.''

Merchants had reason to be worried about the Ridge: Foot traffic had declined. Pawnshops and check-cashing operations were cropping up. Lose the shopping corridor, Miluzzo and others warned, and the whole area could deteriorate.

It didn't help that at the core of the business district, at 6146 Ridge Ave., stood an empty furniture store destroyed by fire back in the late 1980s.

Or that less than 10 minutes away, Main Street, Manayunk, was starting to enjoy the kind of glorious rebirth that would make it a touchstone for Roxborough's efforts at revitalization - even as some residents disdained the influx of designer boutiques and chichi eateries.

In fixating on a farmers market, Roxborough latched on to a popular remedy for ailing communities. Twenty years ago, with supermarkets sweeping the land, farmers markets all but disappeared. But as malls became increasingly commonplace and festival marketplaces, inspired by Boston's Faneuil Hall and the like, began to resemble malls, farmers markets started making a comeback.

Now there are about 2,410 farmers markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

``One of the reasons the markets have grown in number is they've shown an ability to revitalize downtowns over a long period of time,'' said Hilary Baum, co-author of Public Markets and Community Revitalization. ``Other communities and other neighborhoods just keep wanting to jump on the idea.''

Roxborough leaped. Using loans and city and state grants, the RDC, a nonprofit consortium of business and civic groups, put together a $1.4 million financial package to turn the burned-out furniture store into a farmers market.

With the Roxborough-based Vanderbilt company in charge of the market, 27 vendors prepared last fall to break bread and talk turkey behind a handsome brick facade with green and white awning.

Planners talked enthusiastically about the Lancaster County type of farmers market, where consumers buy raw materials grown by the vendors themselves.

They talked excitedly about the Chestnut Hill lifestyle and of residents doing their shopping within walking distance of home. To be sure, they mentioned Manayunk - but only to insist that the Roxborough market offer more reasonable prices and a distinctly different experience.

``It's not intended to be a yuppie farmers market; it's intended to be for all people,'' Christopher DiGeorge, Vanderbilt's president and a Roxborough resident, said recently. ``I want people in the neighborhood to feel like this is their market.''

So the market opened, and a lousy thing happened: It snowed.

And snowed.

In February, a bigger, grander opening drew thousands. But the lousiness returned: It snowed some more.

Now, almost three months after the grand opening in one of the worst winters on record, business, to hear some of the vendors tell it, is not exactly sizzling.

Some complain that there has not been enough advertising. No one knows the market is there, they say, and no one knows where to park - though the RDC has leased two nearby lots that hold 250 cars.

``It's been an unbelievably tough start,'' one vendor said.

Another, Vicki Ard, of Fill A Bagel, called the farmers market ``a cool place that can absolutely make it but that needs promotion.'' Fill A Bagel, she added, may not stay.

Esh's Poultry & B.B.Q., on the other hand, is delighted to be there, thank you. Behind a glass case of fresh boneless turkey cutlets and chicken breasts, Henry Esh said recently that sales were steadily increasing. He called the place ``an upscale market in a downhome setting.''

``If people stay with the market,'' Esh predicted, ``it will do pretty well.''

But many of its neighbors still do not know what to make of the market, which is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Outside her consignment shop, 2nd Expressions, at 6152 Ridge Ave., Joyce Kutner complimented the market's aesthetics and food but remained skeptical about vendors being able to afford the rents and about customers living on Social Security and pensions being able to afford the prices.

``They've got a struggle,'' she said. ``They really do.''

Two doors down, Mary Ann Conrad urged patience.

``Nothing happens overnight,'' said Conrad, owner of Albert Forster's Sons, which sells family shoes and professional uniforms. ``I bought this business established, and it still took me a couple of years before I started to get my money back.''

She could be right to take the long view, said Ed Crow, a market-development consultant who helped plan Roxborough's market. He said it could be two years before the kinks are worked out, the vendors stop turning over, and everyone gets used to the market's existence.

In other words, if there are no plans for a bunch of spiffy new stores on the Ridge, Roxborough shouldn't sweat it.

There is talk of a block party urging people to ``Come Home to the Ridge.''

Or just come and visit, as seven women from an office in Bala did recently. They cross the bridge every week, they said, to have lunch at Roxborough's new attraction.

They eschew the Ardmore Farmers Market (no place to sit) and avoid Manayunk (no place to park) and joke that the vendors at the Roxborough Farmers Market love to see them coming.

Said Robin Karwowski, of Cinnaminson, N.J.: ``They're making a killing on us.''

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