Kristen Vails and Alison Bailey are looking back more than 80 years for inspiration as they attempt to transform the Farmers Public Market area.
In recent weeks, Vails and Bailey have overseen an army of volunteers, mostly college students and young professionals, to bring life back to an area just south of downtown that for decades was a vibrant hub of commerce before fading the past 20 years.
The effort, Better Block OKC, attempts to show how big results can be achieved with minor changes to infrastructure, signage, building appearance and promotion.
Last year, food trucks, pop-up shops, temporary parks, live music and festivities drew thousands to the first Better Block OKC, at NW 7 and Hudson.
The second annual staging will be Saturday at Farmers Public Market.
Vails and Bailey have higher ambitions with their second go-round. In setting up the produce stalls, signage and other temporary staging, Bailey said organizers often took their guidance from historic photos of the market area provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The Better Block OKC organizers say they're surprised by the warm reception they are receiving from property owners. Those in the area are eager to create a weekly destination with the Farmers Public Market already hosting a trade show offering collectibles, retro gifts and antiques every Saturday and Sunday morning.
At the same time, another building is being renovated into a yoga studio, and Matthew Burch has been operating the Urban Agrarian for the past two years. Bailey said Burch will operate an indoor dining venue during the Better Block festivities — an experiment that could lead to a more permanent operation.
Burt McAnally, who bought the Farmers Public Market in 2002, is among those ready to move forward with greater ambitions for the neighborhood. He spent more than $2 million renovating the building over the past decade, and with the arrival of the Better Block OKC team, he launched an exterior renovation that included a new paint job, new signage and fresh landscaping.
“We're putting a little shine on the booths,” McAnally said. “We're hoping to give Oklahoma City a little taste of what the farmers market can be on a day-to-day basis, and not just when there are special events.”
McAnally said he is prepared to work with neighboring property owners to create a new association for the area, and has signed up attorney Bud Scott, president of the Oklahoma Food Alliance, to assist in setting up the organization and pursuing partnerships with the city.
“He's charging me the same hourly rate that I'm charging him in rent,” McAnally said. “I'm definitely getting the better deal.”
McAnally said he doesn't want to step on “others' turfs,” but emphasized he hopes to recreate the area as a seasonal farmers market and not just an event-driven destination.
“We have a Plaza District, we have entertainment districts and an adventure district,” McAnally said. “We need a farmers market district. And if Oklahoma City is going to have a large centralized farmers market district, it should be here. This is where the city called for it to be in 1928, and it should be that way again.”
At a glance
If you go
Better Block OKC will run 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in the area of 311 S Klein, with a variety of food trucks and vendors offering breakfast and lunch. Pop-up shops are set up throughout the market area, and musicians will provide free entertainment during the day.
John J. Harden was one of the city's richest men when he sought to build a large market to provide a meeting place for farmers and fruit growers, renting booths for 25 cents a day.
The building was constructed on the former home of Delmar Gardens, an Oklahoma City version of Coney Island that closed in 1910 after a series of devastating floods. In the 1920s, farmers often lined up along California Avenue, creating an often chaotic scene for city fathers.
Harden secured support from the public and six groups that encouraged the city council to approve his proposal to ban the sale of fresh produce — with the exception of milk and dairy products — anywhere else within Oklahoma City limits.
Nearly 50,000 shoppers crowded the market on its opening day. An orchestra played as shoppers snatched up 15,000 bags of free vegetables — promised by Harden as a promotion — in 90 minutes. Sales were more than $565,000 during the first year and within three years increased to $1.2 million. The market was also home to often dubious traveling medicine shows, as well as boxing matches, concerts and roller skating. The market began its long descent in the 1970s, with more and more of the main building dedicated to an antique mall while a dwindling number of produce vendors continued sales in surrounding buildings.