The Public Market and the City: Significance of the Public Market (Part I)

This is the first part of a three-part series on the public market, a report which I presented in my Infrastructure Development class. Researching on the topic, I came to realize that there is so much history in the public market.

The advent of the clean, bright, air-conditioned, and efficient supermarkets and hypermarkets in the country narrowed customer share and public attention to the public market. As a result, the public market, like the Baguio City Public Market, went from bad to worse in infrastructure and facilities. The vegetable trading center in La Trinidad, Benguet, while it has maintained brisk business with farmer-wholesalers, remains a unwelcoming place to small-time buyers (e.g. tourists).

But, recently, local government units such as in General Santos, Mati, Calapan, Muntinlupa, and Mandaluyong have injected new life into local public markets, through Public-Private Partnerships. These new multi-million public markets are now compliant to the HLURB Standards for Public Markets, although according to feedback from my classmates, the new structures reminiscent of town halls could do with less of concrete and more of alternative building materials.

Beginning 2006, the Department of Agriculture conducts an annual nationwide search for ‘Huwarang Palengke (Model Public Market)’, another incentive for public markets to level up on products, facilities, and services. And with the present Presidential administration, the Department is out to revive farmers’ markets through ‘Agri Pinoy’, the current national strategy for agriculture.

At the Senate, a Bill, authored by Jinggoy Estrada and introduced in the 15th Congress, seeks to revive the country’s public markets. The Bill (664) seeks to provide for a 5-year public markets program involving infrastructure involvement, microfinancing support, institutional advancement, and consumer protection.

The infusion of new resources mirrors public administrators’ renewed interest in the public market. This is good news, considering that the public market plays a central role in the history, culture, and economy of a place.

1. Historical Significance. It is typical for the birth or founding of a town to be prompted by the presence on the site of a market or trading center. You can trace the timeline of the town’s history (and culture) via the history (and trade) of the town’s public market. In Baguio City, there is a replica of the 18th-century photograph of the typical exchange of goods at a central part of the City which would become the site of the public market, until now. An enlarged replica could be viewed on the wall along the Session Road stairway to the Baguio Cathedral. It is placed among the images of Jesus – perhaps to emphasize its importance to the history of this mountain city. (Fire razed the original 1908 public market of stone building and a new facade built over it. This facade is now scraped in some places, revealing the old stone walls which according to local engineers are in fact stronger than the current material. If you’re crazy about history and archaeology like me perhaps touching the old wall could transport you to that time to “see” the place.) The trade would entice migration of people into the place and soon settlements are put up. In current times, the public markets, particularly those on the same site from olden times, heritage sites in themselves, are beacons of the town’s history and cultural evolution.

2. Cultural and Civic Significance. Imagine the olden market or trading center: the exchanges and haggling over spices, silk, precious stones, gold, farm produce, and livestock. Imagine where the traders came from (how many days or months were their travel and on what?), their bundle of goods (how were they able to trade gold and precious stones safely in the open?) and services, their language (how did they understand each other, was there a common business language between say Chinese and Malays?), the gossip, stories, and news they bring from their home towns or countries, the relationships or partnerships formed (or destroyed. Regulars in the public market are familiar with the seller-‘suki’ relationship.).

The marketplace was and still is a venue of cultural exchange. Perhaps it was more so then than now as the marketplace then was the main center of town commerce and trade. The exchange between and among diverse cultures implies that one or the other or both is changed or enriched by the other’s culture, eventually enriching the culture of the community and ultimately society. The exchange of news from various places instils social (and political) concern for the community and could have prompted the traders to an exchange of social (and political) advice and debate. The stories that were told form part of the fabric of stories in each of the listener’s community and ultimately his/her society. It could be said that the marketplace, especially then, is the cradle of town culture and civic action.

3. Economic significance. The public market, because it is regulated by government, supports and shields micro- and small entrepreneurs in the early stages of business when they are most vulnerable to displacement by industry giants. The Baguio City Public Market, specifically the dry market in the Maharlika Building teems with SMEs. It is the cheapest and most extensive place in the City to buy local creation such as hand-woven Cordilleran cloth and wood sculptures. In this, the public market supports the ‘buy local’ initiative.

Regional ‘competitive advantage’ in the public market is not an abstract concept but is played out before the buyer. Let’s take a stall owned by a trader from Mindanao, another from Luzon, and Visayas. Between the Mindanao and Luzon trader, the Mindanao trader will sell durians at much lower cost because it takes less in capital to produce the fruit there. And so you buy from the Mindanao trader.

In the public market, producers receive more or less their asking price while supermarkets, with their financial clout, press their supplier/producer down to the lowest possible selling price (which is why only the big producers transact with supermarkets as they could make profit even with the low asking price by mass producing). Unfortunately, this is also one reason end-consumers prefer to buy from supermarkets than in public markets, because of the low prices.

Food security in the urban areas. Food is produced a long way off from urban consumers (see the Urban Food System (Drakakis-Smith, 2000) framework). The public market provisions for the city by connecting remote producers to urban end-consumers. In the process of securing food for the city, the public market supports producer-entrepreneurs such as, in farmers’ markets which directly connect producers to end-consumers and in trading centers which directly connect producers and retailers (and sometimes end-consumers).

Health wise, the public market ensures the urban population regular supply of nutrition. In Metro Manila, the prices for say Baguio vegetables like carrots is 10 times more than in Baguio, which is ridiculous especially when it’s in season. In these cases, the LGU should exercise its regulatory function and make public market monitoring a regular function. Because the public market is government-owned, prices there should be so priced that the common tao could access the goods. Fresh produce should be accessible especially to the urban poor, for nutritional needs (since vitamins and high-priced supermarket stuff are already out of the reach of the poor) but this is not happening and the LGUs are not doing their job. If the LGUs are really into poverty alleviation one of the first things they must do is manage the public markets well.

What are some of the LGU’s regulatory function over public markets? The experience of 19th-century America (until now) sheds light:

A brief history of American public markets explains why believers in good government valued public markets and fought relentlessly to protect them from private enterprise. Public markets had been the responsibility of local government for millennia. They were critical to the economic survival of a city because waste due to excessive competition could mean poverty and starvation for the community. Following this tradition, the municipality in eighteenth-century America set aside public space and extra-wide streets for markets, built sheds for the protection of buyers and sellers, and established precise rules of commercial conduct in the form of market laws.

Municipal market clerks closely supervised and controlled food retailing in order to protect consumers from spoiled food as well as from merchandise that did not meet standard weights and measures. Revenues from stall rentals supported relief funds for the poor, and market clerks forfeited articles deficient in weight or measure to the poorhouse or the asylum. Market hours also accommodated the various social classes. At the beginning of the day, when middle-class patrons made their purchases, prices were higher. At the end of the day, when merchants reduced prices and the city permitted the elderly, widowed, or handicapped to sell small items from empty stalls, the poorer classes filled the market. Government responsibility for food retailing was also reinforced by the location of markets near, or on the ground floor of, the town hall. Their proximity to the local authority had been a European tradition since the Middle Ages, when the king, church, or local government regulated the urban economy.

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