Closing Time

The Landstrasse Farmers Market Deemed ‘Passe’ By Vienna City Planners

Landstrass Markthalle

Landstrasse Markthalle: business as usual – but not for long | Photo: Michael Freund

A middle-aged, tall woman, having a hard time holding her handbag with her right shoulder while trying to make a phone call with the other hand, stood at the entrance to the indoor Market Hall at Wien Mitte/Landstrasse.

“I’m at the market hall. Do you want me to get you something?” she said, to a friend, perhaps, as a favour. She was just an ordinary woman on an ordinary day, getting groceries for lunch or dinner at the vast market covering two floors of warehouse space in Vienna’s 3rd District.

A year from now, if the City of Vienna follows through on current plans, it will all be a moot point. The massive indoor farmers’ market of delectables will be closed down to make way for the renovation of the Wien Mitte Train Station and the construction of a major shopping center.

Up until recently there had still been talk of a renovation of the market hall. Then suddenly the Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) announced that the required €10 million didn’t make economic sense. And a suggested transformation into a “gourmet temple,” would require twice that amount.

On Feb. 7, the vendors at the Markthalle each received a letter notifying them about their eviction by the end of the year – and wishing them luck. Nothing more, at least not yet. For the new owner of the Market Hall, the real estate company BAI (Bauträger Austria Immobilien), the Wien Mitte reconstruction is the major Vienna project at the moment. Not only is Wien Mitte the junction of U3, U4 and the S-Bahn, but it’s also the terminal of City Airport Train (CAT). With that in mind, a 30,000 sq. m, shopping centre and a “mega” hotel, with a conference centre holding 6,000 people, are planned – the Wien Mitte should become more than a run-down market building.

Vienna is not the first city to take such steps.  In January, the nearly 150-year-old market hall in Bolton, UK, was closed down to be used for retail units; and among others, the famous Les Halles in Paris was closed in 1971 to be replaced with an underground shopping area. There seems to be less and less space and appreciation for such traditional market halls.

Even if there are some valid arguments, that few people shop in these markets or that renovations cost the city and taxpayers a lot, supporters of the market argue that a notion of tradition should be given some weight. According to a Feb. 21, article in Der Standard, closing the market hall would make Vienna “culinarily poorer.”

What is hard to dispute is that the Landstrasser Market cannot be replaced. Behind the heavy glass doors of the rundown, grey, old building, is a variety of foods hard to find anywhere else in Vienna. Past the first stand of flawless confections, is a stand of Uncle Sam’s Vitamins, which turned out to be a colourful landscape of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as nuts, dried fruit, jams and jellies.

The owner, a Tunisian named Soudi, who has three Uncle Sam stands at the Markthalle, has already lost hope.

“I’ve three children, and we’ll end up on the street,” he said in despair, talking over his shoulder while serving a client. Being an established merchant for more than 20 years, Soudi, 46, doesn’t see any chance of finding other work at his age. “I’ve no energy left! I put everything into these stands,” he said, briskly lifting a white paper bag from behind the counter.

“Look, these are all customer signatures I collected,” he said proudly, petitions to keep the market hall.  But he holds out little hope. “These stands cost millions of euros. I’ll never get the money back.” There has been talk of compensation, but nothing definite. But that’s not his only concern.

“Landstrasser Market is in the heart of Vienna,” he pointed out. “It’s really a shame.” Ironically, the BAI has the same argument – only from another perspective.

A little further along the glass window of Schmankerln (Tasty Tidbits) aus dem Waldviertel and Burgenland held a colourful display of wine, cheeses, sausage and preserves from these regions, where a bad-tempered consumer refused to respond to questions. This happened repeatedly, perhaps reflecting the painful reality of the impending close.

Cloves, coriander, caraway and other hand-packed spices in cute little boxes, at the average price of one  Euro, filled the shelves of a weathered old stand with signs in Gothic script, selling “rustic platters” of a variety of cheeses such as pumpkin-seed cheese or smoke-dried gouda.

The cheese paradise went on. After the Asia House and seafood stands was another Ham & Cheese Specialties, offering even greater delicacies, succulent cheese wrapped in pastries, port-wine canard or apple in calvados, carefully arranged in a variety of colours.

Struggling to select a ham, eyes wide, one customer was indignant about the closedown.

“In supermarkets everything is stacked! Nowhere else you can get delicacies as fresh as here,” she complained angrily, about the “concrete block with all the trimmings” that would replace the market hall. “Sadly it seems to be a decided issue. But I haven’t given up hope,” she said without looking up, never taking her eyes off the pastries.

Customers care. For many, the Landstrasser market is a local service area they don’t want to see replaced with yet another supermarket chain store. But although, everything is kept very clean and neat, renovations are clearly necessary.

“It is desolate. Elevators are broken, and it’s raining inside,” a butcher couldn’t deny. Still, people said repeatedly, the first floor display of meat- and fish products is the last place in Vienna offering such quality and variety, attracting the chefs of many of the city’s most exclusive restaurant. Yet that doesn’t seem to be enough.

“I don’t see a solution. Everybody needs to look after himself,” the butcher said, who hoped only that everything would go smoothly and painlessly. He has mixed feelings – “a smiling and crying eye” – about the market: Yes it’s the last market of its kind, but it’s also in bad shape.

Passing by Charlottes’ Wurst-Stand, I went back downstairs to the fruit and vegetable paradise. Fritz Thum, the owner of Fruits- & Tropical fruits told me a bit about the prices, while tying parsley in bunches.

“Generally it’s not more expensive than in shops. But of course, we can’t keep pace with special offers,” he said. He showed me a pineapple for €1, 98. “Even at Hofer it was €2, 45,” he said with a grin. With connections, he told me, it’s possible to get something cheap if big chains don’t take it – and then offer it at a lower price.

Money is a concern, too. “The BAI promised us money, but how much? When a big company fires 300 people, they have social – and retraining programs.” He was angry; that’s nothing the merchants can expect.

“But be honest, how often do you cook fresh vegetables?” he asked. For that, there is no ready answer. Younger people don’t often cook for themselves and need such markets less and less, he said. This may be true.

But the Landstrasser Market is clearly appreciated by its loyal, long-time clients for many reasons. For every customer, including those who live further away or even come from other parts of Austria, the Landstrasser Market is one of a kind. At least for a few months more.

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