Washington Market

NE Corner of Washington and Chippewa
Fig. 1: Washington Market (c. 1900), northeast corner of Washington and Chippewa. St. Michael’s Church is in the background. Today, the site is a parking lot for M&T Bank.

Washington Market

Established in 1856, the Washington Market (also known as the Chippewa Market) was Buffalo’s oldest public retail market. The market covered roughly two and a half acres, and accommodated over 400 stalls.

Washington Market 1890
Fig. 2: Washington Market (1890), Buffalo, NY.
Washington market 1890 2
Fig. 3: Washington Market (c.1890), Buffalo, NY.

From Gwen Ito, “A look back at the Washington Market,” Buffalo Spree (Buffalo: Buffalo Spree Publishing, May 2013):

Reflecting Old World customs and a simpler way of life, the Washington Market was a hub of activity for exuberant shoppers and hardworking vendors of poultry, butter, cheese, fruits, and vegetables, as well as crockery, tins, knit products, and other assorted goods. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays were the prime market days. On Saturdays, the Washington Market could become so crowded that navigating through the hundreds of stalls was indeed a challenge…

Albert D. Wiener’s parents were among the many merchants who rented retail space at the Washington Market. In a 1972 interview that appeared in Niagara Frontier magazine, he shared memories from when he was between eight and ten years old (1907-1909): “I used to visit the Chippewa Market on Saturdays to help my folks run their produce stand by bagging a few items or running errands around the stall. I was fascinated by the action and the excitement of seeing the merchants with their big displays of fruits and vegetables surrounded by the crowds of people, some getting out of carriages or occasionally electric automobiles.”

In the early hours of January 5, 1942, the Washington Market suffered a massive fire. The stalls of seventy meat sellers and delicatessen operators were destroyed by the blaze, which caused $115,000 worth of damage and left two firefighters injured. The fire had apparently begun in the meat stalls, with the flames working their way up to the wooden roof. Rebuilding the burned-down sections was costly, as several years earlier, the Common Council had voted to discontinue insuring most public buildings, including the market.

Within a few years, business seemed to be back to normal at the market. After his trip to the rehabilitated space in late November 1949, Rollin Palmer wrote in his Buffalo Courier-Express column: “There was the pungent, piquant, mingled aromas of spices, fruits and vegetables… There were the market people in their white coats over thick, warm sweaters, carrying on running gossip among themselves, only stopping from time to time to wait on the customers who were filling their oversized shopping bags.”

Meanwhile, lack of adequate parking for automobiles had become a growing concern. Some local leaders proposed renovating the market to include a top-level parking lot. By the 1950s, the City Planning Board was waging increasingly more aggressive discussions about tearing down the market completely and selling off the land. At the heart of the debate was the belief that the market, despite its popularity, was running an irreversible deficit.

A 1963 Buffalo Courier-Express article by Clare Allen affirmed the value of the Washington Market, even as the movement to close it down was gaining momentum. She profiled the poultry and egg stand of the Ziemer Family from Germany and began by stating: “It was never as large as the Broadway Market or the now-defunct Elk St. wholesale market in area or the amount of business transacted by tenants. But it remains an important shopping center for housewives of the city who, like their mothers before them, patronize the stalls operated by merchants who have been at the market for many years.”

Nonetheless, in 1965, after years of making newspaper headlines about the controversy, the city of Buffalo made the sale of the market final. The Buffalo Savings Bank had bought the city-owned property for $184,000 at a public auction. The bank owners planned to raze the property and turn it into a parking lot as part of an expansion. One of the opponents was a young Common Council member from the Ellicott district named James D. Griffin. In an article that appeared in the Buffalo Evening News on February 24, 1965, Griffin was quoted as saying, “I can’t see where we’re going to get any real value out of a bank parking lot.”1

Washington Market 1905
Fig. 4: View of the Washington Market (c. 1905), Buffalo, NY.

An article titled “Market Conditions in Buffalo” appeared in Housewives League Magazine in 1913. The article quotes a report from Mrs. Thomas Coulson, whose detailed descriptions paint a colorful (if unappetizing) picture of what a Buffalo market was like at the beginning of the twentieth century:

I am doubtful if our present day enlightenment on the subject of germs makes us any happier. I sometimes envy the care-free indifference of our grandmothers. They bought, cooked and ate, with no thought of the deadly microbe…In my inspection of the Buffalo city markets I saw many things which I probably would have passed unnoticed years ago.

At the Elk street market…Vegetables in crates were stacked up everywhere…Men were passing in and out of the doorways and I saw a constant volley of expectoration aimed at nothing and nowhere in particular, but often hitting the crates and their contents…Many horses were tied so close to the crates that they were easily nibbling the green leaves that protruded from between the slats…

A visit to the Chippewa market was made on a windy Saturday morning when the stalls were well-stocked, in anticipation of a large business. A display of baked goods presented an excellent target for the dust, which was whirled through the narrow lanes by the wind. Bread, cookies, fried-cakes, and pound and fruit cake were exposed to the dust and the touch of the passer-by. The loaf cakes were cut in half and the cut side turned to the front; they seemed to challenge one to touch them, whether an intended purchaser or not. In most cases the challenge appeared to be accepted. The sample half-oranges at the next stall plainly showed the amount of settled dust which did not reveal itself on the fruit cake. Customers handled the unwrapped bread and cakes at will.

One fruit vendor who handled celery as a side line was removing the outside pieces, which were rotten, when a customer asked for dates. He wiped his hands on his apron and weighed up a pound of dates, his hands touching every date that went into the bag…

The Chippewa market is new and presents a fairly clean and trim appearance, but no attempt is made to cover the food. Butter, cheese, honey, mustard, pickles and many other things are exposed to the dust-laden air. Cut meats on the counters are handled freely by the passing crowd…2

Chippewa Market 1908
Fig. 5: Early morning at the Chippewa Market (1908), postcard, Buffalo, NY.

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