How Food Halls, Marketplaces, and Restaurants Create Community Vibrancy

  • DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn Heights, New York. (Photo/Penny Smythe)

My name is Penny and my job is unique: I am an improvement district worker.

What does that mean? I get to create place, community and vibrancy.

I am currently the marketing & communications director for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership (ADP), which is a non-profit entity that manages the Downtown Improvement District.

We provide clean, safe and vital services throughout the improvement district to make it a better place for everyone! In my 10+ years of working downtown, the vibrancy and vitality (or revitalization) of downtown has been an ongoing conversation.

Many important elements contribute to downtown revitalizations - affordable housing, new development, and job opportunities — to name a few. Equally important is ADP’s work: helping facilitate a sense of “place and community”.

This past summer, I had the honor of joining  the International Downtown Association’s Emerging Leader Fellowship Program. I met folks from 30 different downtowns and improvement districts from around the world, from Cape Town, South Africa to Calgary, Canada, and across the United States.

As we discussed how to brighten and enliven our communities, one theme in particular emerged: FOOD!

There seems to be a connective tissue between food and community. During the week, we visiting several neighborhoods, including Jackson Heights. Not only has Jackson Heights been successful in “space activation” — inserting bike parking into a parklet on the street or transforming a roundabout into a small park — but it is home to a dynamic culinary scene as well! Diverse restaurants and streetfront markets create vibrant community interaction and give residents plenty of opportunity to get to know one another.

Brooklyn recently developed a mall that housed a food hall called the Dekalb Market Hall in its basement floor. It only features local foods businesses, chefs and entrepreneurs from every type of culture and type of culinary cuisine, and was designed in a way that reflects the essence of the Brooklyn community, making it an inviting experience for locals and visitors alike.

It also provides a new type of space for bringing community together and features various concerts and music on different days of the week for visitors to enjoy. Even the historical Plaza Hotel in New York City is home to a food hall and marketplace in its basement.

This isn’t just a New York City trend; across the country, Food Hall and Marketplace centers are opening their doors. More people want and appreciate locally sourced, delicious products rather than mass-produced food being shipped in from out of state.

In essence, the marketplaces from the early 1900’s are experiencing a comeback (break out the corsets!)! They offer a place for community with a variety of things to taste, shop in and experience; perhaps that’s why improvement districts love the concept of marketplaces and food halls — they are an automatic community and vibrancy generator.

Denver is a perfect example. A new area called the “RINO District” (short for River Art North District) was created in North Denver, a part of town previously used mostly for rail and largely occupied by some lower-income residential and unused soon-to-be torn down industrial buildings.

Denver Central Market. (Photo/Penny Smythe)

The RINO district is a classic example of how a community can change because of the development of food halls, community centers and explosion of art. RINO is the new “it” food and art scene for Denver, and the food and art halls have grown and attracted some of the top restaurants in Denver. 

Why are people drawn to these places?  For the food. For the locally grown produce from Colorado farms, and grass-fed Colorado Beef that you can get hand cut by a butcher. For the craft brews and craft Colorado bourbons. For the experience.

But, enough about market places and food halls and back to OUR Anchorage community. During my short stint in NYC we enjoyed some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan and Times Square, and then some of the best cultural cuisine that Brooklyn and Jackson Heights had to offer while learning how to save the world, one improvement district at a time.

All I kept thinking about was how GOOD (and much better in many cases) our very own downtown Anchorage restaurant offerings are compared to the places we experienced in NYC.

What is also much more evident in the downtown Anchorage improvement district is that our restaurant establishments really do exemplify how restaurants create community and vibrancy. Whether it’s dining at a café or restaurant before or after a show at the Performing Arts Center, or for a celebration of a birthday, anniversary, or simply a night out, people come into downtown because of the variety of our delectable restaurant establishments.

People come into downtown for the experience, and in doing so help create a sense of place and vibrancy

I always refer to downtown Anchorage as a community built from small and locally owned businesses. The entrepreneurial spirit is in our DNA, especially when it comes to dining establishments in our 120 square blocks.

New and successful restaurants are always popping up adding to the variety for folks to come experience. For example, in the past 2 years, Wild Scoops, Midnight Sun Brewing Company, El Green-Go's, and International House of Hotdogs have made an entrance into the downtown food community.

In my role with ADP, I’ve had the pleasure of running our downtown dining programs to help bring new people into our local dining establishments and have gotten to know and meet our downtown restaurant owners, managers, and staff. We have a variety restaurants, spanning from cafes and small mom and pop shops to pubs and breweries to larger establishments.

These are mostly locally owned businesses that were created by Alaskan entrepreneurs. They all represent their own type of cuisine and cultural element that add to and create our downtown community, and are certainly something to celebrate and thank for helping to create a place and vibrancy in our downtown! Most importantly, they all care about the community and contribute to making downtown a better place for most.

We are fortunate to have great FOOD entrepreneurs who bring culinary culture to downtown Anchorage, attract people to our improvement district, and help provide vibrancy and vitality for the downtown neighborhood. Join me in supporting and celebrating them!

Alaska Startup Week is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect across the state and is a collaborative effort by multiple organizations to diversify Alaska’s economy, largely led by entrepreneurs. This year, Alaska Startup Week has grown from three communities to ten, with over 70 events in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, Kenai, Soldotna, Palmer, Bethel, Homer, and Seward. Alaska Startup Week is on Facebook.

Penny Smythe is the Marketing and Communications Director for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership. A “foodie” at heart, her passion is cooking and learning about other cultures and their culinary cuisine. You say red wine reduction, and she’ll raise you a béchamel sauce.

Updated: 
11/17/2018 - 2:27pm

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