The Dark Side of Market Modernization

March 4, 2022
Emil van Eck

Editor’s Note: Emil’s research with the Plein ’40-’45 Market highlights several of the Seven Principles of Market Cities, including Opportunity and Place. His work shows how vending in public markets offers people, especially new immigrants, a low-barrier way to make a living and a place to connect with each other. The Market Cities Program is pleased to see cities like Amsterdam develop strategies that include their public markets, but we also hope these plans are guided by the principle of Collaboration to include the voices of all stakeholders, particularly those who are most directly impacted.

Plein ’40-’45 is a large outdoor retail market located in the ethnically diverse and relatively low-income neighborhood of Slotermeer Northeast on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Most of the customers are, like the vendors, of immigrant origin. They look to the market as a place where they can find specific vegetables, halal meat, herbs, and clothes such as Moroccan djellabas. Plein ’40-’45 also serves as a critical piece of social infrastructure: it is a space where community relationships are created and fostered.

And yet, on the basis of a new policy program, the municipality of Amsterdam, which owns and operates this market, plans to transform the market, which is currently open five days a week, into an upscale Saturday-only market to attract new and more affluent customers. While gentrifying the market is not articulated as an explicit goal in the policy program, the redevelopment plans can be understood as an attempt to stimulate retail gentrification. In this way, the redevelopment plan turns its focus toward catering to better-off future residents and merchants instead of focusing on the needs of the people there today.

"Labeling this market as a “bad market” ignores its social values and serves to create a spirit of division and defeat on the ground, thus fueling a self-fulfilling prophecy." 

If this plan were to happen, the change would have negative consequences for the local community’s ability to buy affordable and cultural-specific goods, as well as to meet friends, family members, and acquaintances. The current situation at Plein ’40-’45 illustrates how the economic and social opportunities of markets, particularly for marginalized groups, exist alongside ongoing threats of redevelopment and displacement. The silver lining is that these policy plans are yet to be finalized so it is still possible to mitigate the more damaging effects of these redevelopment plans and use these lessons to inform future market policy.

Markets as Social Infrastructure

I came to learn about the potential outcomes of this market policy, outlined in a document titled “Vision on Markets 2018-2026,” while conducting research as part of the international Moving MarketPlaces (MMP) project, which aims to understand how markets function as prototypical public spaces by studying the practices and activities of vendors. Between August 2019 and June 2021, I conducted intensive observation on the Plein ’40-’45 market, spending most of my ethnographic fieldwork talking to market vendors, as well as visiting their homes, storage rooms, and auctions, to gain a deeper understanding of their everyday lives.

I met Saleh (a pseudonym) during this time. I was strolling through the Plein ’40-’45 market and came upon a food truck selling Syrian food. Saleh offered me a sample of his falafel and stuffed grape leaves. 

Plein ’40-’45 bustles with activity offering a bevy of goods and a meeting place for local residents. Credit: Tiago N.

He had arrived in the Netherlands four years ago and recently turned to market vending as a way to make a living in the city. For the last few months, Saleh had been selling at different markets throughout Amsterdam where he developed a steady clientele. His customers advised him to also sell at the Plein ’40-’45 market, suggesting that many neighborhood residents there might be interested in buying his food. The regular conversation with customers and other vendors had not only helped Saleh move to the Plein ’40-’45 market independently, it had also quickly improved his Dutch. When I complimented Saleh on his proficiency, he thanked me and proudly responded: “It will only get better through this work.”

For many vendors like Saleh, relationships with neighborhood residents allow them to grow their businesses. This quality turns the market into an important public good, fostering a sense of entrepreneurial autonomy and self-worth for vendors—especially those facing precarious economic conditions accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Plein ’40-’45 market provides important opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to establish their businesses thanks to relatively affordable rents, flexible leases, and minimal overhead costs. The vendors I spoke with often entered market trading in order to seek autonomy over their business activities and livelihoods as compared to other, often precarious, waged labor opportunities in the city. 

Mrs. Sewdihal, a Hindustani-Surinamese trader who has been working at the market for almost 20 years, told me that her husband had been employed as a cleaner before they decided to sell at the market together. She explained that her husband sought a way out of the cleaning industry, a job he described as thankless and unsatisfying. He wanted to be “his own boss again,” an opportunity that market trading seemed to provide. Other vendors, who were handed down businesses in the market via parents or siblings, also emphasized the freedom of the market trading economy. 

In this way, markets like the one at Plein ’40-’45 foster recurrent social interactions, relationships, and mutual support, and in these ways, they can improve a person’s sense of autonomy and self-worth. This social infrastructure often bridges across cultures, with the market acting as a node in global networks where vendors, products, visitors, and customs from all over the world come together and establish intercultural connections. Day by day, the vendors assert their right to the market by simply being there: assembling the stalls, selling goods, working, and communing with themselves and local residents.

With space for 153 market stalls, the Plein ’40-’45 market is one of the biggest markets in Amsterdam. Photo credit: Rianne van Melik. 

The Market as a Contested Place

During my research, I also conducted semi-structured interviews with the parties responsible for the management and regulation of markets, such as policymakers, market managers, and representatives of the national traders’ association. When I asked policymakers and representatives of the national traders’ association about the perceived need to partially close the market, they often depicted Plein ’40-’45 as “unruly” and “different” to legitimize its re-development. In turn, labeling this market as a “bad market” ignores its social values and serves to create a spirit of division and defeat on the ground, thus fueling a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

If Plein ’40-’45 were to be redeveloped as planned, established vendors would face the threat of displacement. They would likely lose their jobs, investments and established clientele, and be forced to look for new selling locations in and even outside the city. This context of uncertainty and precarity leads to complications at the market: some vendors have become suspicious towards market managers and other vendors, which has resulted in shouting matches, altercations, and fights. 

These conflicts tend to be judged in racist terms by institutional actors. At the time of my research, the market had been managed for several months by two white Dutch women and one Dutch-Moroccan man—an interesting feature of Amsterdam’s markets is that management is on a rotation system in an effort to curb corruption. The white market managers tended to fall back on racialized stereotypes when explaining why conflicts occur. They characterized the behavior of traders as “petulant” and “envious,” while simultaneously reducing these traits to their assumed social-cultural attributes. “That’s the nationality,” explained one white market manager. “That’s culture-specific, like really being jealous.” 

These are not offhand comments: They reflect deeply ingrained ideas in national and local integration debates about supposedly incompatible norms and values. In this case, these stereotypes play out in the assumption that cultural traits constrain migrant vendors’ successful participation in higher-end retail activities. Such arguments, illustrated in the everyday interactions between managers and vendors, justify pushing the market closer to the frontier of redevelopment and overlook ways that the market could better serve the people who currently rely on it for economic and social opportunities. 

Toward More Inclusive Market Management

Although this finding is based on a specific ethnographic study that might be hard to generalize, it does show broader patterns and dynamics that can speak to other contexts. 

In Amsterdam and beyond, the governance of street vending and market trading has been reshaped by a global paradigm of competitive cities and commercial public spaces. The global spread of profitable redevelopment projects, big retail chains and online shopping has pushed markets to the urban margins. However, my research offers a few starting points for policymakers, market managers, and other stakeholders to establish more inclusive forms of market management that could eventually strengthen the position of markets and their vendors, both socially and economically. 

Shoppers and vendors at the Plein ’40-’45 market. Photo credit: Rianne van Melik. 

It all starts with the fundamental recognition that markets have significant economic and social value to both customers and vendors. Markets provide opportunities for vulnerable groups to flourish due to relatively low-entry barriers and the provision of affordable products. Vendors also develop durable social relationships at the market, which in turn helps them to sustain and grow their small businesses.

With this recognition, institutional actors should start to preserve and validate the unique qualities that vendors have. For example, instead of advocating for a wholesale redevelopment of the market, authorities can ask vendors what they need in order to improve their personal businesses. In this process, consultations on the future of the market should be transparent and vendors must be actively involved. 

Starting with a market’s assets—particularly its people—and involving vendors in decision-making processes can help disrupt the self-fulfilling prophecy of redevelopment plans and lead to a more inclusive market for all. 

Emil van Eck is a PhD candidate in urban geography at the department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Radboud University, the Netherlands. His PhD research focuses on the place-making and mobility practices of market vendors to better understand the everyday production of retail markets as public spaces in European cities and towns.

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