Stories Will Remember Eastern Market

Posted May 13, 2009 at 4:50pm

While city officials and construction crews rebuild the infrastructure of Eastern Market, volunteers are putting the market back together again on their own, one story at a time.

Volunteers from the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project have begun conducting interviews with Eastern Market merchants and community leaders to create a living history of the rebuilding process under way since a fire devastated the neighborhood landmark two years ago.

“So much effort has gone into rebuilding the market, from city officials to local residents,— said Elizabeth Lewis, a Capitol Hill resident who volunteered to lead the initiative. “This is a way to capture those stories.—

The Eastern Market interviews mark a series of firsts for the eight-year-old history project that has collected and documented the oral histories of about 130 Capitol Hill residents to date.

The interviews are the first time the project has focused on one particular aspect of Capitol Hill history and will result in the first major public display of the project’s work, with plans for a photography exhibit and video at the market’s grand reopening.

Mayor Adrian Fenty vowed to rebuild the neighborhood landmark immediately after an early morning, three-alarm fire devastated the structure on April 30, 2007. The community quickly rallied as well, holding fundraisers and T-shirt sales to raise money and providing temporary jobs to displaced merchants.

“I remember going to a fundraiser the next day and not being able to get in the door,— said Bernadette McMahon, who manages the Overbeck project from her Capitol Hill home. “People wanted to help, so there are now all kinds of stories of how the community responded and the city responded.—

The suggestion to document the market’s rebuilding through the oral histories of those involved first came last summer from a member of the Eastern Market Community Advisory Committee, the body of stakeholders that advises the city on all issues related to the market.

McMahon spent the next months planning the launch of the project’s most ambitious undertaking ever, considering that the project relies solely on volunteers and operates on a “shoestring budget,— provided mainly by the Capitol Hill Community Foundation.

Two dilemmas were quickly solved when the local branch of Coldwell Banker donated the use of their offices on Pennsylvania Avenue for the interviews, and the project’s word-of-mouth advertising campaign resulted in enthusiastic new recruits to lead the interviews.

Among the new faces to join the project’s 70 or so volunteers are a journalist from Sri Lanka, a former Newsweek reporter and a professional storyteller.

“That’s been the best thing, and so typical of Capitol Hill,— Lewis said. “The market is just such a part of our lives, and there’s so much enthusiasm.—

One of the new volunteers, 23-year-old Langley Bowers, took the initiative in a new direction when he volunteered his filmmaking services to create a short video to accompany the oral histories. Bowers grew up just blocks from Eastern Market on Capitol Hill and returned to the city after college to work as a freelance production assistant.

Bowers has already begun preproduction work on a short video documenting the fire and the community’s response that will play at the market’s reopening, but has even bigger hopes for bringing the stories to life on a more permanent basis.

“We’d like to create an exhibit at the market with photographs, the oral histories and the video,— Bowers said. “It’s been amazing to see how much the market means to so many people.—

Organizers say about 10 of the 50 to 60 interviews they expect to conduct have been completed to date.

Their wish list of names is still evolving and includes everyone from Mayor Fenty and City Administrator Dan Tangherlini to local reporters who covered the fire, historians, nearby store owners and the merchants and weekend vendors who keep the market running.

Community leaders speculate the market will reopen in mid-June, although city officials have yet to confirm a date.

“We’ll continue past the reopening until the stories are told,— Lewis said. “We want to make sure the whole history is preserved.—