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Boston Haymarket vendors persevere through pandemic on 200th anniversary

One of America’s oldest open-air markets is quietly celebrating a historic milestone by keeping its stands up and running for its community.

Otto Gallotto, president of the Haymarket Pushcart Association, in 2016.
Otto Gallotto, president of the Haymarket Pushcart Association, in 2016.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file

Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, one of America’s oldest open-air markets is quietly celebrating a historic milestone by keeping its stands up and running for its community.

The Haymarket is a Boston institution, known for its affordable produce, no-nonsense vendors, and its constant presence on Blackstone, Hanover, and North streets — the Blackstone Block Historic District near Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market — every Friday and Saturday from dawn to dusk, rain or shine.

This year, the Haymarket Pushcart Association is celebrating its 200th anniversary, although the market itself dates back even further in history.

“As one of America’s oldest open-air markets, Boston’s Haymarket continues to be a cultural and historic spot at the heart of downtown,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a recently prepared statement. “I am proud to celebrate this historic achievement and hope that [the] Haymarket will continue to grow and thrive here in the city of Boston.”

HPA president Otto Gallotto hoped to commemorate the occasion with a ribbon-cutting ceremony or maybe a small marker, but those plans are now on hold as the market struggles to stay open during the pandemic.

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Gallotto, 58, has been instrumental in keeping the Haymarket running since he was unanimously elected HPA president in 2004 by the association’s 36 members, all of whom are stand owners.

Gallotto said that during the pandemic, he has done everything in his power to make the market as safe as possible for both its customers and its vendors among dwindling crowds. In the early stages of the pandemic shutdown, the market operated at limited capacity with only six or seven businesses open, though the number — while still reduced — has steadily increased.

The once-bustling market is now spaced out with six feet between stands, and the small storefronts only allow a few people in at a time. Signs warn guests: “Do not touch the produce,” a mandate Gallotto enforces, much to some customers’ frustration.

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A woman shops for produce at Haymarket in March.
A woman shops for produce at Haymarket in March.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

“A lot of people just walk away if I tell them they can’t pick their own oranges, but you know what? Fine,” he said, adding that he does not want to put anybody — not vendors or customers — at risk.

“This market has to survive for everybody,” Gallotto said. “The rich people, the poor people, the [middle-class] people ... everybody has to come here.” Gallotto’s friends, colleagues, and even customers give him credit for keeping the market open in the face of numerous obstacles ranging from the Big Dig, to construction for a new hotel on Blackstone Street, and now the pandemic. “He has the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to keep this place alive,” said his friend Robert Barresi, who helps Gallotto advertise the market on social media.

The Haymarket has become even more vital to its customers as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, offering affordable food and familiarity, vendors maintain.

In her nearly 20 years working around the Haymarket, produce vendor Alyssa “Sina” Chhim, 45, knows many of her most faithful customers come from low-income households and depend on the Haymarket’s wholesale prices, so she does her best to ensure people get the food they need.

“They come every single week. It doesn’t matter rain or snow, they still come,” said Chhim, who emigrated from Cambodia as a child. “I’m not wealthy, but I’m happy to [help] low-income people put food on their tables for their children.”

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Preserved for “hawkers and peddlers” by a 1952 state law and 1978 city ordinance, Blackstone Street remains relatively unchanged as the longtime home of the Haymarket. Many of the Haymarket’s veteran vendors watched the city evolve around the market firsthand and have faith it will outlast the latest obstacle thrown its way.

Joey Onessimo, better known to his fellow vendors as “Joey O,” has a favorite joke whenever he talks about the Central Artery, a visible fixture from Blackstone Street from 1953 until the Big Dig.

Alemao Menchaca carries his daughter, Zoe, 2, while his wife, Leticia (left), and mother, Vielka, shop for produce at Haymarket in March.
Alemao Menchaca carries his daughter, Zoe, 2, while his wife, Leticia (left), and mother, Vielka, shop for produce at Haymarket in March.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

“I was here when it went up; I was here when it went down,” he said. Onessimo started working at the Haymarket in 1948 when he was 8 years old, working for his brother on a “horse and team” (a horse-drawn pushcart). Now 79, he retired 15 years ago but still comes by every Saturday at 1 p.m. for lunch with “the boys.”

He and Frank Pennacchio, 89, have been friends for 50 years and still love to swap stories about old times. It is a bittersweet affair for them having outlived many of the people they worked beside for decades.

“What I miss is my old friends,” Onessimo said. “We had a nice thing going for 30 or 40 years.”

Once predominantly frequented by Italian families from the North End, the market has since evolved into a multicultural gathering place, “a sort of United Nations in Boston,” as frequent customer Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin described it.

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Tarik Kadiri was a customer before he started working at Gallotto’s stand. To him, the market is like a piece of home, a reminder of souks (traditional marketplaces) in his native Morocco. “It’s like the world is here,” he said. “You see all nationalities, people from all over the world.”

Rieng Kim, 37, is one of the youngest produce stand owners at the Haymarket. A Cambodian immigrant, she followed in her mother’s footsteps to run her own business. “Nobody wants to see white people everywhere,” she joked. “People feel more welcome to come. You see people of your own kind.”

For many of the vendors, the Haymarket is not just a place; it is in their blood. Today, it is a heritage that younger generations are determined to carry into the 21st century.

Robert Barresi, 36, was brought to the Haymarket by his father beginning when he was 12 years old. As a self-described “millennial pushcart vendor,” he is now reaching out to a new generation of potential shoppers through social media. In 2010, Barresi started a Facebook page for the Haymarket to open a line of communication and get the word out to tourists, new Boston residents, and younger generations — especially college students, a key demographic for cheap produce.

The Facebook page has now become a vital tool for the market, providing weekly updates — from the latest safety protocols to which seasonal foods are available — during the pandemic. One vendor said he is working to integrate payment apps, such as Venmo, across the market to cater to younger clients who tend not to carry cash.

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The Haymarket will see its next big change with Hilton’s newest Boston Hotel, the Canopy, also known as Parcel 9, that is being built on Blackstone Street. As part of negotiations with the HPA, the hotel will provide three trash compactors and new, more durable tents for the vendors.

The market is changing to keep up with the times, but Gallotto believes that the tradition of the Haymarket will live on as it always has — as a meeting point for all walks of life. “It’s a key part of the city where people can actually come out and congregate, meet, talk to one another,” he said. “You see the same faces over and over; that’s the great thing about this market ... you get to make friends.”