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Paul McMorrow

Haymarket pushcart vendors need to embrace change

The pushcart vendors in Boston’s Haymarket district have resisted new approaches from pre-Big Dig ways.

Jim Wilson/Globe Staff/File 1986

The pushcart vendors in Boston’s Haymarket district have resisted new approaches from pre-Big Dig ways.

THE POST-Big Dig era is coming for Haymarket’s pushcart vendors. It remains to be seen how they will fit into this new era, which will inevitably bring high-value real estate development and a broadening of the number of markets operating in Haymarket Square. The pushcart vendors understand that new competition and new construction threaten the way Haymarket has operated for a generation. Their efforts to forestall change have been counterproductive and wrongheaded. The future of the pushcart market depends not on the outside protection the vendors have sought, but on their willingness to embrace change that’s rushing toward them, whether they like it or not.

For a half century, the vendors thrived by selling produce on weekends in the shadows of the elevated Southeast Expressway. The expressway’s demolition has set off a scramble by public agencies to save the Haymarket pushcarts from certain gentrification. These efforts are aimed at maintaining one of the few corners of Boston where tourists and locals, natives and immigrants, and shoppers of all incomes still commingle. Maintaining common ground at Haymarket is a worthy goal, but it’s been pursued from the wrong direction.

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Up until now, the general attitude from the Haymarket pushcart vendors has been that, because they were in Haymarket when the elevated expressway cast the square in shadow, they get veto power over who comes into Haymarket Square now that the highway has given way to the Greenway. They’re still trying to leave themselves untouched by the Big Dig — an infrastructure project that turned the blocks around Haymarket into some of the city’s most valuable land.

The pushcart vendors waged an intense lobbying campaign against a redevelopment proposal on a publicly owned Haymarket parcel two years ago. The pushcarts successfully convinced the state Department of Transportation officials who control the so-called Parcel 9 land that any new residents would be incompatible with Haymarket’s operation. Parcel 9 is now up for bid again, and while the pushcart vendors have softened their absolutist opposition to new residents, they’re still dictating terms to DOT’s real estate arm.

This bid to freeze the Haymarket pushcarts in place misses the history of the market the vendors and the state are trying to protect.

Before the elevated expressway cut off the North End from Scollay Square, Haymarket sold fresh produce to residents who shopped for groceries daily. Refrigeration, supermarkets, and the highway combined to kill off this model; people began shopping for food weekly, and they weren’t shopping underneath a noisy, dusty highway. Today’s Haymarket pushcarts adapted the historic Haymarket brand to the highway condition: They sold very cheap, very ripe produce on weekends. Low prices excused the atmospherics of the highway running overhead, and the smells and piles of trash that came with moving large volumes of highly perishable products.

Haymarket has largely continued to operate as it did when the expressway still stood. The pushcart fight to influence development at two DOT-owned properties remaining from the Big Dig — Parcel 9, a triangular slice of vacant land along the new Greenway, and the neighboring Parcel 7 parking garage — has been about preserving a chaotic, only sometimes sanitary operational scheme borne from pre-Big Dig Boston.

The vendors are demanding that the pushcarts be given a veto over any future condominium conversion.

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Initially, the pushcart vendors convinced DOT that their market was entirely incompatible with any sort of residential use in the neighborhood. Now, they’re insisting that any residential development in the area be restricted to rental housing, and that the pushcarts be given a veto over any future condominium conversion. Both stances amount to NIMBYism — the pushcarts objecting to rich people, especially land-owning rich people, in their neighborhood.

What the pushcarts miss is that Haymarket is going to change, whether they like it or not, thanks to the landscape the Big Dig left behind. The city and state are working together to dramatically expand the Haymarket district. They’re creating a new nonprofit market for local farmers on Parcel 7. All four development bids for Parcel 9 — two housing proposals, a hotel, and a museum — include ground-floor market uses. No one has suggested that these other markets will also drive potential neighbors crazy with noise and smells and trash. So the act of selling produce isn’t the friction point; the way it gets sold in Haymarket today is. The pushcart vendors need to drop their confrontational stance, and find a way to thrive in a changing neighborhood. Anything less works against their own self-preservation.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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