Watching the Market

Just outside the Loop off West Bellfort, in a neighborhood of trees and brick homes and Home Depots, lies a big asphalt parking lot bordered on two sides by weathered buildings. Outside the main two-story structure hangs a shiny new sign for the Houston Agricultural Market Center. Through a portal in the structure lies an almost forgotten European courtyard of trees, fountains, cobblestones and, mostly, shuttered shops. Welcome to Westbury Square.

"Is that place still there?" asks Houston Contractor Association vice president Jeff Nielsen. "It used to be a neat little mall, with a fountain in the middle of it." Nielsen was a stock boy in the early '80s at his mom's Tuesday Morning shop in Westbury Square. "It was pretty bustling in those days," he says. "A lot of mom-and-pop shops. I remember a magic shop that was pretty neat."

The center, and the neighborhood, fell on hard times during the late '80s and '90s, but now the area is becoming revitalized, with younger families and new businesses moving in. Once an artsy haven for crystal shops and galleries, Westbury Square shows the years of emptiness and neglect in its leaky roofs and crumbling plaster. But here and there are signs of life, and quality of life. Some charming antique stores, the almost plush poetry and jazz spot Caravan Serai, and the verdant Kelly's Flowers, where parrots hang in cages from the balcony above a quaint patio. And now, there's the Houston Agricultural Market Center, an outdoor farmers market.

If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, could the road to urban revitalization also be through food? The explosion of Texas concepts such as Austin's Whole Foods and San Antonio's H-E-B Central Markets certainly indicates a desire for organic and fresh produce.

"I'm from Oregon," says Westbury Square Corporation manager Roy Virpoli. "We had an agriculture and artists market there that was just packed with families, so I wanted something like that here. A place to have art festivals and chili cook-offs -- HAMC will be great for stuff like that."

"This is really an idea I had in college," says HAMC founder Joseph Schofield. "It's been in the making for about three years. We've got an office here and about 9,000 square feet of space outside for vendors." As of May 3, the market is open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Westbury tenants think the fresh fruit and vegetable stands might draw in more foot traffic. "I really hope so," says Larry Dodgen of These Old Things. "I have a background in history, and I think we tear down too many of these old buildings. This place has such ambience; when I first saw it I thought of the French Quarter. The new manager is great; I'm glad they want to keep the place, but they don't have a lot of money for repairs or marketing. Hopefully the market will help bring people in."

Caravan Serai's Byron Ford plans to expand the hours at his coffeehouse. "Maybe I'll open early for people at the market who want their coffee," he says.

There's something charming about the square in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney let's-put-on-a-show kind of way. But the center, and HAMC, still have obstacles to overcome.

"I don't know who's running it," says Bob Randall of Urban Harvest, "but they'll need a lot of money. Starting a market would be like running a newspaper without a lot of cash." Urban Harvest, a support arm to almost 100 urban gardeners, has its own green market task force that has been trying to establish a market for some time. The problem, says Randall, is money. "You need a lot of money to back it. It requires getting farmers and customers to show up every week, and you can't do that with volunteers."

"Oh, yeah, it's going to be hard, and very expensive," admits Schofield. "Right now it's volunteers, but we have some money and we hope to eventually have about $100,000-a-year operating budget and bring in 120 growers. During the winter we'll have crafts and Christmas trees, and the rest of the year it will all be seasonal."

Sounds idyllic, much like the European shopping square itself. But the question remains: If you sell it, will they come? So far HAMC has only ten growers represented, none of whom is from Houston, and Schofield admits he'd like to have the local urban gardeners. "We really need them, and we don't have the money to advertise right now," he says.

HAMC hopes to eventually have a computer lab on site where shoppers can download recipes and look up information on the food they're buying. They're also planning classes in agriculture awareness and stretching your food dollar. The nonprofit HAMC has big plans in an old-fashioned way. Just like Westbury Square, which, by the way, is looking for restaurant tenants.

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Marene Gustin