Street markets are this professor’s laboratory

Oct. 28, 2009

by Jenny Price

Alfonso Morales didn’t sit in a library to do research for his graduate degrees.

Alfonso Morales, assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, talks with a vendor at the Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square on Oct. 17. Morales focuses his research on analyzing the social, political and economic processes that produce street-level businesses.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Instead, he worked as a vendor in Chicago’s famed Maxwell Street Market, where he saw firsthand that public markets serve as fertile ground for entrepreneurs and new businesses, gathering places for communities and an entry point into the economy and society for new arrivals to the United States.

“Markets are living laboratories,” says Morales, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning whose work analyzes the social, political and economic processes that produce street-level businesses.

From 1989-92, Morales sold used items (donated by professors and fellow graduate students) and new bathroom accessories with a business partner. The experience was the foundation of his work as he earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago — where he was a student of famed sociologists James Coleman and William Julius Wilson — and a Ph.D. at Northwestern University under the direction of Art Stinchcombe. His connection to Maxwell Street continues to form his research and scholarship today.

“I still write about and communicate with people who I worked with at the market,” he says. “Now, 20 years later, it’s amazing.”

Many cities don’t want public markets because they believe the cost of running them will be greater than the benefits they provide, but Morales’s experience at Maxwell Street showed him people don’t always need government involvement to tell them how to organize themselves.

Now, with the United States and the rest of the world in recession, Morales says there’s anecdotal evidence that more people are flocking to garage sales, flea markets and swap meets — either as buyers or sellers — to obtain goods at lower prices or to earn alternative income.

“People don’t grow up and go to college and say ‘I want to be a street vendor,’ but in the face of serious problems, people think creatively and they find solutions,” Morales says. “Selling in a market is a solution, whether you’re a garage sale guy supplementing your unemployment check or the one income that’s coming into your household, or whether you find a way to make a living at it, which people do.”

In many ways, markets are a hidden part of the economy, though that wasn’t always the case, Morales says. Up until 1940, “peddler” was a Census occupation category and in 1920 there was an official count of all of the public markets in the country; there were 237 markets in 128 cities at the time.

“We measure what we care about, and so part of it is a question of measurement. The federal government collects statistics of all sorts … but rarely are these activities enumerated,” he says. “This is an economically active population aiming for mobility or at least to make ends meet … we should harness their entrepreneurial energy.”

Morales also argues local governments should make it easier for markets to take hold because of the benefits they provide, including tools for community development and employment. When he studied Maxwell Street, it was surprising how much money could be made at the market.

“Some merchants made $800 or $900 in a single day, $1,000, and this was their occupation,” he says. “Their children were in private schools. They were purchasing buildings.’’

Morales has edited a book on street markets around the world and also hosts a Web page for academic work connected to public markets and street vendors, though he says contributors have also been known to post photos of their favorite markets. More recently, Morales has focused attention on how public markets can serve public health.

“There are examples of street vendors selling healthy food in some places around the country and providing it in places that have little access to healthy food, places that people call food deserts,” he says.

Rural and urban markets are emerging or being rehabilitated all over the country, but “in some jurisdictions creating a market is impossible, they’re not allowed.” Many cities don’t want public markets because they believe the cost of running them will be greater than the benefits they provide, but his experience at Maxwell Street showed him people don’t always need government involvement to tell them how to organize themselves.

“This was a 1,000-vendor flea market and every Sunday these various ethnic groups — black, white and brown — got together and allocated vending space to each other with basically no fuss,” he says.

Public markets have few barriers to entry, making business experimentation possible, and the ease of building a business is particularly important for people with limited resources as well as new immigrants in cities.

“Markets are a familiar place, a sort of socioeconomic interface, where people can incorporate themselves into their new surroundings,” he says.

Street markets have served as incubators for major business ventures, launching TV pitchman Ron Popeil and clothing corporation Phillips-Van Heusen. And sometimes, they even serve as a catalyst for revolution, as Faneuil Hall did in Boston, Morales says.

“A public market that is basically one of the cradles of the revolution. … it’s hard not to get kind of excited and say ‘wow,’” he says. “These are day-to-day activities that people hardly pay attention to and yet they fulfill such great promise in so many different ways.”