By Kathy Brenneman
Rodeo Drive, Hollywood and Highland, the Sunset Strip-such glitzy hotspots are the habitual playgrounds of L.A.’s trendiest. What attraction, then, could a neighborhood market hold for this chic young crowd? In a mysterious departure from their world of glamour, these youthful Angelenos have begun congregating at the Farmers Market on the corner of 3rd and Fairfax. Hoping to decipher this puzzling phenomenon, I recently spent an afternoon at the market. I wanted to understand why this old-fashioned marketplace has become a vibrant intersection of young and old L.A. residents. Our appreciation of this distinctive Farmers Market culture hinges on our familiarity with the market’s history because, as seventeenth-century philosopher G.W. Leibniz observes, contemporary culture can only be understood in light of its past. We are able to make sense of what this unique, intergenerational Los Angeles space is today by exploring the forces that shaped it.
Currently, the Farmers Market is the place to be for both young and old Angelenos. Many of the elderly patrons have been faithfully coming here for as long as they can remember. Known as regulars, they stop in on a near-daily basis to socialize with friends and vendors in a cheerful, familiar setting reminiscent of days gone by.
Stanley, a typical regular, is an 82-year-old life-long customer who grew up visiting the market on weekends. After taking in a baseball game or midget car race at the stadiums in the neighboring lot, his family would walk over to the Farmers Market to grab a bite to eat at one of the food stands. Now he comes every morning to read the newspaper over coffee and doughnuts from Bob’s Coffee and Doughnut Shop .
Although historically dominated by the regulars, the marketplace recently became a prime hangout for Los Angeles’ young people when The Grove shopping complex was constructed in the market’s backyard. These fresh-faced mall patrons, with their oversized shopping bags and cutting-edge style, have given market culture a new twist. Many of the fashionable young shoppers simply come to the market as a side trip from their day at The Grove, but an impressive number of them have become enchanted with the retro décor and friendly atmosphere of the place and are joining the market community as bona fide regulars.
Loyal customers like Stanley have largely comprised the Farmers Market community ever since the marketplace opened in 1932. According to the brochure Meet Me at Third and Fairfax , the market began operation during the Depression era as a small collection of fruit and vegetable stands run by local farmers. Hollywood housewives, eager to purchase the freshest groceries, became devoted customers and turned the Farmers Market into Hollywood’s number one corner store. Another pamphlet, Farmers Market, notes that the site was extensively remodeled and expanded in 1941. Seeking to broaden its customer base, the market added a diverse selection of restaurants and food stands. During this period, it became one of Los Angeles’ most attractive destinations, as families would walk over for a bite to eat after sporting events and businessmen began stopping by on their lunch hour. Over the next sixty years, these customers from the early days continued to comprise the majority of the market community.
My visit to the Farmers Market confirmed that the faithful regulars remain very much a part of the market culture. Now senior citizens, the young sports fans of the 1930’s and 1940’s enjoy soaking up the market’s old-style atmosphere. They gather around the green folding tables, which are reminiscent of their childhood years, to chat with longtime friends or indulge in a good book.
Entering the market by way of the East Patio, I noticed that hardly a chair was empty. A throng of elderly patrons congregated in front of Bob’s Coffee and Doughnut Shop and Bennett’s Ice Cream. Three elderly couples sat together drinking coffee and genially conversing with a vendor who called them by name; two elderly women sipped tea while reading novels; three older men met to eat ice cream cones and talk; and several senior citizens sat alone, reading and people-watching. They were easily distinguishable, for their older ages and familiarity with the vendors indicated a long-term connection with the place, and their casual clothing (fishing hats, blue jeans, sweaters, and tennis shoes) signaled an intimacy with their surroundings.
Although the regulars retain a daily presence at the Farmers Market, they no longer dominate the market community. In March of 2002, the community’s makeup was radically altered with the construction of The Grove shopping mall in the adjacent lot to the north that used to house the old sports stadiums. The upscale shopping center has provided the market with a steady stream of new patrons. Immensely popular, the mall attracted over 25 million customers from the greater L.A. area in its first year of operation, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Due to its fashionable modern image, The Grove tends to attract L.A.’s trendy young adult crowd. One Farmers Market Office employee said that the Farmers Market wanted to grasp the opportunity to integrate a new generation of customers into its community, so market managers asked The Grove to limit itself to fancy restaurants. This way the mall patrons who wanted a quick and casual meal would be drawn to the market’s food stands and diners, and those who desired fancier fare would seek out the more elegant restaurants at the shopping center. The Farmers Market was presented to the new crowd as a place to enjoy snacks and conversation during a short break from a busy day of shopping.
It was clear from my visit that many members of this younger crowd do indeed come to the Farmers Market for the simple purpose of grabbing a bite to eat during a shopping spree next door. Their excursions to the market were not long (25 minutes maximum), nor did they involve intimate conversation (cell phones were the norm). With their big-name shopping bags, chic clothes, and expensive handbags, they stuck out from the regulars.
A young woman wearing a fur coat, crop-top, and pink handbag sat at a table eating pizza with two female companions who sported Louis Vuitton purses and Nordstrom shopping bags. One of the regulars, an elderly screenwriter who chose to remain anonymous, remarked that women here show their bellybuttons now, indicating that the glamorous young women are becoming a highly visible part of the community. Yet they seemed rather out of place. Two younger women who had just finished their lunch rose to walk away, leaving their trash on the table. After several seconds of hesitation and furtive glances, they decided to do what every regular patron would do: dispose of it themselves.
Although the Farmers Market is no more than a pit stop for a large number of these young Angelenos, at least a portion of their generation has come to appreciate the market as a place where tradition rules. Originally, this group of young adults came in only for a snack, their thoughts preoccupied with shopping and their minds unaware of the historic culture that surrounded them. However, after sitting on the red vinyl stools while eating hamburgers, enjoying homemade vanilla ice cream cones, and savoring stacks of hotcakes at Du Par’s diner , they soon became charmed by the market’s retro atmosphere. These young folks are taken back to a previous era and given the opportunity to see what life was like in the mid-twentieth century. Best of all, the experience is totally authentic, as many original establishments are still thriving and several vendors can be seen making their own products. According to Stanley, Magee’s House of Nuts has been operating daily since 1934 and still uses its original peanut butter processor. The Farmers Market website reports that Scott Bennett still makes his ice cream from scratch, and Michael Graves of Littlejohn’s House of Toffee is one of a very few confectioners in the United States who still make candy by hand.
Besides providing the new generation with a visual re-creation of the past, this old-fashioned marketplace invites them to become part of a community that embraces a slower pace of life than their current culture demands. Young Angelenos find the Farmers Market a comforting refuge from today’s world of corporate supermarkets and communication technology. Here, 90% of the shops and stalls are operated by their owners, and personal vendor/customer relationships are still valued. Tracy, a young woman in her twenties who frequents the market on a weekly basis, told me that she appreciates the opportunity for personal contact with her grocer so much that she does all her grocery shopping at the market and encourages her friends to do the same.
While at the market, she always takes time to visit with the senior citizens. They have taught her the value of turning off her cell phone and setting aside her daily business in order to simply sit and chat. After talking with Tracy, I looked around for other young customers who looked like they were there for the purpose of enjoying the community. My eyes were drawn to a table where a casually dressed young couple sat sipping Cokes with an elderly man, and then to a table where a male college student was reading a textbook, his feet propped up on a chair. Their trips to the market were not at all related to a shopping adventure at The Grove. No, these young people were here because they genuinely wished to partake of the friendly, laid-back culture that has always been a trademark of Farmers Market society. Eventually, they will form the core groups of regulars, and it will be up to them to carry the market’s traditional spirit of friendliness and intimacy into the twenty-first century.
There is no other place in Los Angeles like the Farmers Market, where the intersection of modern, young culture with the traditions of past generations creates a truly original communal space. Though the makeup of its clientele has significantly changed in the last two years, the market’s retro atmosphere remains the heart and soul of this community. The glamorous lifestyle of the younger crowd does not go unnoticed here, but it takes a backseat to the old-fashioned culture of the regulars that permeates every food stand and patio. As the new patrons gradually recognize the charm of the place and embrace the opportunity to escape the frantic lifestyle of present-day Los Angeles, their visits to the Farmers Market are taken less often as shoppers from The Grove and more often as the latest generation of regulars.
About the Author:
Kathy is a senior history major at USC who plans to attend graduate school to obtain a teaching credential and a masters degree in education. Her campus activities include JEP and Campus Crusade for Christ. She misses the quiet spaces and the four seasons of her native Michigan, but sunny, eclectic Los Angeles has definitely grown on her. She hopes to stay in the area for several more years of Trojan football and beautiful weather.