Pour one out for the original: After 13 years as a fixture of summer in Boston, the South End Open Market is dead.
The weekly outdoor gathering of food trucks, artisans, and farm stands on Harrison Avenue had been scheduled to move this season to a park being constructed underneath the Interstate 93 deck by National Development, the company that built the nearby Ink Block complex.
Instead, New England Open Markets president Chris Masci is pulling the plug on his flagship Sunday event, citing competition from other markets — especially the nearly identical “SoWa Open Market” created by his former landlord on the site where Masci operated until last year. The two parted ways amid a nasty legal and personal dispute that resulted in Masci temporarily relocating to a parking lot down the street, a move he initially said would be a boon to vendors but which he now admits confused patrons and hurt sales.
“We had built up a customer base over 13 years, and we only had six months to get the message about the new location out there and retrain people,” Masci said. “They just didn’t get it.”
Another problem: The markets at the original location were interspersed between attractive brick warehouses containing artists’ studios, restaurants, and a year-round vintage clothing and antique furnishings market. The parking lot site Masci used last year, a last-minute replacement arranged by National Development after a one-year delay in building the highway park, was drab.
“It was in the middle of a construction zone,” Masci said, referring to the numerous mixed-use projects going up on nearby parcels. “It just wasn’t what we were used to.”
Ironically, Masci’s market helped spark that building spree. Founded in 2003, it presciently anticipated the craze for authentic, local goods, drawing thousands of visitors — and the attention of developers — to an industrial corner of the South End that had long been a haven for artists but previously had little foot traffic.
With success, however, came higher business stakes, straining the 2004 handshake deal between Masci and Mario Nicosia, whose GTI Properties Inc. owns the brick buildings and adjacent lots where market vendors set up tents.
The two first fought in early 2015 over the trademark to “SoWa,” or “South of Washington,” a nickname for the neighborhood. That skirmish quickly became a war: Masci alleged in court that GTI was trying to recruit his vendors and cut him out. Nicosia fired back with his own lawsuit, saying Masci withheld GTI’s cut of fees collected from vendors who failed to show up on rainy days.
The sides eventually agreed to a partial settlement that saw Nicosia retain the “SoWa” trademark. Masci picked up his markets and left after the end of the 2015 season. Each vowed to outdo the other.
Tensions flared again last May, when the men got into their latest shouting match on the sidewalk near Masci’s market.
A judge later issued a no-trespassing order barring Nicosia from the market, which he unsuccessfully challenged.
Masci’s standalone South End Open Market debuted last season to large crowds, but by the fall, business had dropped off significantly. A number of vendors defected to GTI during the season and returned to the original site. Some said Masci’s market was disorganized.
“The logistics were a mess, and the turnout was horrible,” said furniture maker and longtime vendor Scott Kelley, who forfeited his spot at the market several weeks into the 2016 season. “Chris thought everyone would follow him, but no one really cared who was running it — they just wanted to go to same spot they were used to going to for years.”
David Gilson, owner of the Herb Lyceum in Groton and another longtime vendor, decided to remain at GTI as a manager of its farmers’ and specialty food market last year. He worried that few patrons would find their way to the park under I-93, while GTI’s market was familiar and had a critical mass of attractions.
“It’s very hard to have a destination market if you’re not ‘tailgating’ another crowd-supporting venue,” said Gilson.
However, Gilson also heaped praise on Masci, calling him a “visionary” whose market concept predated popular crafts websites such as Etsy by years.
Masci pointed to a number of vendors who did well in 2016 but acknowledged others struggled. He declined to criticize Nicosia, saying that even as he mourns the weekly market, he is focused on the future.
“I am sad. I do have an emotional attachment,” Masci said. “But there are so many markets now. We were the pioneers of that, and I’m happy it’s taken off, but we have to evolve and create new opportunities for different artists.”
Masci’s New England Open Markets will continue to operate a weekend market on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway downtown. It will also stage several events at National Development’s “Ink Underground” park, including a nighttime market and a “live” street art festival based on a similar event last year that won praise from artists and vendors.
“The feeling and the vibe from it was phenomenal,” said Rob Gibbs , a prominent graffiti artist and cofounder of Artists for Humanity, who described painting a mural for a rapt audience at last year’s street art event. “Imagine opening night at the movies — that’s how many people were watching us paint.”
Nicosia, for his part, couldn’t resist jabbing at Masci, saying his former tenant “got a little carried away kicking us around” in court and disparaging his market site last year as “a rundown parking lot.”
The GTI boss is expanding his SoWa market, which will now run on Saturdays in addition to Sunday. He said that having just one market in the neighborhood will mean less confusion and better business for the vendors, including those who sided with Masci but have now been left stranded by the collapse of the South End Open Market.
“There was a lot of acrimony, but we forgave all the vendors, no matter how bad the things they said about us were,” Nicosia said. “They’re just trying to make a living. I don’t hold any grudges.”