| Public markets once thrived in many parts of the United States, but more of these open-air markets could be found in New Orleans than in any other city, and they continued to operate there for a longer period of time than in any other place. Today, New Orleans has the distinction of being home to the oldest continuously running public market in the United States - the French Market, established in 1779.
Public markets were very popular with the French who founded the city and, also, with the Spanish government which followed. The idea of publicly owned markets was attractive to the Spanish because it increased local revenue and was a way of having some control over commerce in the city.
In later years, one factor that influenced the markets' continuing popularity had to do with the fact that New Orleans has always been a city of distinct and distinctive neighborhoods. For most New Orleanians, neighborhood roots are very deep, so these local public markets lasted longer than their counterparts in other cities. As Dan Baum wrote in his book, Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death & Life in New Orleans, pub. 2009, "Neighborhood identity in New Orleans is very strong; many people here describe lives lived entirely within a dozen city blocks." In the early 1900's, there were still thirty-two public markets, at least one in every neighborhood.
"The markets served and reflected the cultural dynamics of the city's neighborhoods. At the end of the 19th century, immigration through the port of New Orleans matched that of New York and San Francisco in numbers and diversity. For many immigrants, the public market provided them with an entry point into the economy as as small-scale entrepreneurs. Cheese mongers, fish mongers, butchers and green grocers provided New Orleans shoppers with necessities like calas tout chauds (fried rice cakes), estomac mulatre (gingerbread) and file powder for gumbo. Sicilian truck farmers carted in crops like creole artichokes, tomatoes, garlic and fava beans. Coastal fishermen would market oysters, shrimp, crawfish and a wide selection of fish." [From Wikipedia]
As time went by, one by one, the old public markets surrendered to the march of progress. Implementation of mechanical refrigeration, not available in the old, open-air markets, lured customers away. Private chain stores became more popular, aided by the fact that more people owned automobiles. Help, in the form of modernization, came to the old markets too late. Of the many that once existed in the city, the French Market is the only one that remains open and public.
Today, when even the most senior of the area's citizens recalls the public neighborhood markets, his or her thoughts go to a much revised version. During the Depression of the 1930's, many of the old markets underwent thorough renovation by the WPA and became, not only modernized, but indoor establishments. Needless to say, this changed the appearance and, also, the character of the quaint old markets.