Whose Waterfront? The Fight for a Farmers’ Market on the San Francisco Docks

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Laura E. Ferguson, University of Michigan
Whose waterfront?: The Fight for a Farmers’ Market on the San Francisco Docks

Laura Ferguson

University of Michigan

This paper examines a multiyear campaign, launched by northern California farmers, for a public produce market in the heart of San Francisco’s commercial waterfront. Over the course of the fifteen-year fight for a market, several groups entered the fray, including state-appointed harbor commissioners, produce wholesalers, shipping and railroad representatives, state legislators, and numerous members of farmers’ collectives. While the city’s commercial and political elite focused on national and global markets, billing California the “Cornucopia of the World,” Bay Area farmers sought local markets for their goods as well. For the harbor commissioners, turning dock space into a free public market meant giving up wharfage revenue, while for wholesalers it meant being cut out of the distribution networks all together. Each side claimed to be serving the public good by deploying their own particular definition of “public good.” The market, when farmers finally secured it, lasted just one season; a century later, San Franciscans again sought a farmers’ market on the Bay. They succeeded, and it has become the physical and cultural hub of the city’s local food movement. It is not, however, the free, accessible marketplace envisioned one-hundred years before.

I will consider the 1895-1910 farmers’ market campaign within the context of San Francisco as a port city. San Francisco was, especially at the end of the twentieth century, the preeminent west coast port. In cultural, social, and economic terms, it served as a hub, a harbor, a marketplace, and entrepôt. In examining the fight over the presence of a market, I take up the interplay between small-scale interactions among individuals and large-scale flows of people, goods, and capital to consider the relationship between cultural meanings and political economy.