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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Rome's Public Markets: a Cautionary Tale

Rome's neighborhoods remain vibrant communities in most respects, in part because the big box stores and malls that have damaged American cities are generally located far on the city's outskirts. Yet we have noticed that one element of the traditional Roman neighborhood appears to be in trouble: the neighborhood's central market. 

Our first recognition of the problem emerged in San Lorenzo, where it was clear that the central market, and the local, traditional system of food distribution, was in difficulty. Roughly half that market had been replaced by tables and chairs for drinkers (mostly) and diners of nearby restaurants and bars. And the half that remained was only partially populated. Only one butcher--a 72 year old man--continues to practice the craft in San Lorenzo. We talked to him, and he bemoaned the fate of his trade. He had very few offerings compared to butcher shops we've seen in other neighborhoods. He clearly saw himself as the "last butcher in San Lorenzo." And we counted only two fresh fruit and vegetables shops in the area. 

More than half of San Lorenzo's public market is now tables and chairs--or empty.

Friends tell us that the new indoor market in Testaccio is also troubled--more cafés and bars than traditional market offerings. The newish Trionfale market appears to be suffering too, Several years ago, the outdoor/shed market at Quarto Miglio was transformed into a children's playground and a center for street art.

The Quarto Miglio market, on a Saturday, at noon, in 2019. Only one stand was open.

An elaborate program of street art had failed to revive the Quarto Miglio market

Something similar is happening more slowly in the area around Piazza Bologna, where the large indoor public market on via Catania has been serving the community for decades. The market is located in a densely populated area--apartment buildings of up to 10 stories--that ought to be capable of supporting even a large public market. 

 At first glance the market looks healthy. 

But there are empty stalls.

We decided to do a survey. We walked the market, Dianne counting the total number of stores and stalls, Bill counting the number of empty stores and stalls. It was 10:30 in the morning, when one would expect the market to be in full swing.

Dianne's results: 148 stores and stalls

Bill's results: 49 stores and stalls closed (roughly 1/3)

Unfortunately, it's likely that the story of the via Catania market--a story of decline--is being repeated across the city. Chain grocery stores, with expanded hours, are proliferating.  Many of the daily (and mostly women) shoppers that once had their mornings free to shop at the market are now working. Young Romans are getting married at an average age of 32--and then having few children, or none at all. Fewer households having regular meals, fewer families and fewer family members to shop for. And, of course, the supermarkets have taken business away from the public markets. The future looks grim.


For other posts on public markets, of the many references on this blog, see the following:

On Testaccio's "new" market:

On our favorite public market:

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