Lexington, Kentucky – August, 2021. “Julia Etta Lewis was a very large woman and a hellraiser,” is how Obiora Embry, an area resident and naturalist, remembers one of Lexington, Kentucky’s legendary civil rights figures. “When she sat down to protest segregation in schools, buses, and restaurants, it took five cops to move her.” Given how Ms. Lewis is recalled (she passed away in 1998)—an indomitable spirit who galvanized Lexington’s Black community against the injustices of the day—it seems only fitting that today’s community would look for a way to memorialize her. So rather than sell the “naming rights” for a recently opened public market to one of the region’s corporations, neighbors came together and christened the new venture the Julietta Market.
Located on Lexington’s northside in the heart of what most people I talked to agreed was a food desert, the Julietta Market is housed in the GreyLine Station, named for one of its previous incarnations—a Greyhound bus terminal. Constructed in 1928, the building has gone through various uses, owners, and extended periods of vacancy. It’s shed all that history to emerge today as a beautifully restored space dedicated to supporting the development and operation of locally owned businesses, most of which are focused on food and beverages.
Formerly owned by the regional transportation district, it was purchased in 2018 by Needham Properties, a private developer. While several spacious, well-lit restaurants and cafes now rent space facing the street sides, the interior is largely devoted to the Julietta Market, itself a project of the non-profit North Limestone Community Development Corporation (“NoLi”). The Market’s giant “courtyard” accommodates 60 small business kiosks, 20 pop-up spaces, 7 food stalls, and a shared kitchen and event space. Nearly 70 percent of these spaces are occupied by minority vendors.
Even though most of Julietta’s activities have only been operational for just over a year, NoLi started planning the project in 2014. One key to its early success was an extensive community engagement process that, in addition to naming the market, defined the community venture’s goals as providing the surrounding neighborhoods with access to healthy food (particularly affordable produce), addressing inequities faced by food business start-ups, and providing food producers with equipment and residents with food education. This process and the build-out of the market space were supported by the Knight Foundation and USDA’s Community Food Project Grant Program.
My first reaction to such a project was to ask myself why I would want to eat food from a stinky old bus garage. But in the parlance of today’s imaginative new urbanists, GreyLine Station and Julietta Market are perfect examples of “adaptive reuse.” What else are you going to do with a building that has a footprint of over half-an-acre and a cavernous open floor space that soars three stories high? Tearing it down was about the only other feasible option. But in an interesting mixed-used neighborhood that was showing signs of revitalization without excessive yuppification, a food space that celebrated local ownership and entrepreneurship was a courageous, indeed necessary, choice. As Jim Embry, Obiora’s father and a long-time community activist who marched with Ms. Lewis, told me, “this market is a culmination and a knitting together of various community efforts, now under one roof.”
“Julietta is a creative space and a radical way of being a neighbor,” was how Christine Smith, the executive director of Seedleaf put it. They are a non-profit community gardening and education organization that oversees a dozen community garden sites including one, two-acre urban farm. They also operate numerous horticulture and food education programs for youth and Lexington’s schools. Along with several other Lexington food and farm organizations, Seedleaf sees itself as an innovative partner with Julietta. “If I have a wild-hair of an idea for an activity, I can come to Andrea,” Christine told me.
She’s referring to Andrea James, recently hired by NoLi to manage the Market, and more importantly, to bring dozens of ideas to fruition. One of those ideas was Christine’s desire to use Julietta as the site for their annual plant sale. “Last year,” she tells me, “We sold plants from one of our garden sites and didn’t make any money. This year we did it at Julietta, and made lots!”
It’s 93 degrees outside on a humid August day. But inside the Market we’re kept cool and comfortable without air conditioning by spinning ceiling fans the size of helicopter rotors. I’m sitting at a long picnic table having lunch with Christine, Andrea, and several other Julietta Market partners including Ashley Smith who heads Black Soil, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Black farmers in Kentucky. Black Soil serves as the main connection between local agriculture and the Market’s shoppers by aggregating produce from the region’s Black-owned farms for sale seven days a week at Julietta.
Many Black Soil farmers are too small or don’t have enough time to maintain a vendor booth. One of those is Carmella Conner whose Stoner View Farm I stayed at during my time in Lexington. She brings her eggs and sweet corn into the Market on Thursday for Black Soil to sell through the weekend. “It’s a huge benefit because the market gets so crowded, which is a good thing for the sellers but takes too much time away from my farm and business.”
Black Soil’s role is wide and deep. It maintains several booths at the Market featuring their locally sourced food which can be purchased with SNAP benefits, including Kentucky’s Double Dollars (SNAP incentive program). Currently, it’s providing about 100 bags of produce a week to subscribers in a modified CSA-format that uses EBT and P-EBT. On the Market’s short-list of new ventures is a shared-use kitchen that Black Soil will manage. According to Andrea, the kitchen should be open before the end of this year and eventually serve as “an equity facilitator in the restaurant/food truck sector of our city” by giving vendors and farmers opportunities to enter the prepared food arena.
Clearly, one very important player in both Julietta’s emergence and evolution is the City of Lexington. According to City Councilman James Brown, government agencies identified numerous food gaps, (e.g., “food deserts”) as far back as 2009. “Julietta Market is filling that gap with lots of healthy food and educational opportunities. The Market is heaven sent, and the Community Food Project grant made it happen!” He underscored the city’s on-going commitment to a just, local food system in the person of Ashton Potter-Wright, Director of Local Food and Agricultural Development who occupies a key position in Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton’s office. Ashton co-developed (along with Andrea James) the city’s Bluegrass Farm to Table initiative which secured maximum impact for farmers and consumers from Double (SNAP) Dollars, Senior Farmers Market Coupons, and GusNIP funds, all of which are accepted and used at Julietta. As Ashton described herself, “I’m a connector!”
While the strength of the local food network and its associated partnerships is undeniable to Julietta’s story, where the Market sets itself apart is the commitment to and support for local business development. Finishing up a delicious local lunch salad courtesy of Black Soil, I ask Julietta’s Director of Operations, Adina Tatum, to explain their relationship to their vendors. Adina, who previous to taking her current position only 8 months ago, ran a bridal shop for 14 years, does a lot of vendor training. “Since we’re an incubator for new and developing businesses, we have to assist them with details they’re not familiar with, like on-line sales reporting and securing a certificate of occupancy from the building inspector.” What might be described as adult hand-holding, Adina helps them navigate all the difficult business realities while remaining sensitive to the fact that her vendors have families and other jobs to tend to.
Though Adina has a charming personality and skill-set uniquely suited to her demanding responsibilities, she’s also passionate about Julietta’s mission. “My hope,” she asserts, “is that our vendors will source [all] their produce locally. That—not gentrification—will grow our community and our farms. That’s why I walk our shoppers around the Market so that they learn why local food and locally owned businesses are important.”
Enjoying a late afternoon cappuccino at the Market’s coffee shop, I couldn’t help but notice an old five-story brick warehouse across the street. Its windows were broken or covered in plywood, and it bore the name “Farmer’s & Builders Supply Co.” In giant, faded white lettering up and down its walls, like hieroglyphics from a previous industrial era, are the words “Hay, Coal, Oats, Corn, Blue Grass Tobacco….” How appropriate, I thought, that a new food and farm era, itself built on the bones of an old bus garage, should be ushered in across the street from this relic of the past. As Andrea put it, “CFP allowed us to root Julietta Market in access to healthy food and to put the quality of life of our residents front and center.” Health, community, and local producers first; that may be the guiding mantra of this new food and farm age.
*This is the third in what will be a series of five articles about the USDA Community Food Projects Grant Program that is celebrating its 25th year of operation. To see the previous articles about CFP projects in Montana and New Mexico go to www.markwinne.com.
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