Favourite space: Fair food

Greg Thompson
Mary Baxter's picture
Mary Baxter is editor of Morelmag.ca and a contributing editor of Better Farming magazine, the largest circulating farm magazine in Ontario and Canada’s top website for online farm news. In 2007, she, along with her former Better Farming colleagues won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Investigative Journalism in the magazine category. In 2012, she also won the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Star Prize for print journalism. Mary is based in London, ON.

 

 

 

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Greg Thompson straddles a saddle-backed stool on the second floor of what he claims is his favourite space: the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market.

He’s a tall, lanky fellow with a low-key, neighbourly sort of geniality that he expresses in nods and waves to others while we talk and subsequently tour the market’s stalls, most hidden by checked or flowered plastic tablecloths (it’s Tuesday, after all, and the market is in full swing only on Saturdays).

Thompson, a realtor, chairs the Urban League of London, an umbrella organization that represents the city’s community groups. He’s also president of the Old East Village Community Association.

He founded the association in 2003, three years after he and his wife, Susan, moved from Westmount into the area that’s bounded west and east by, respectively, Adelaide Street and Ashland Avenue, as well as railroad tracks north and south.

Old East’s gritty, inner-city feel reminded the couple of Toronto’s Queen Street West district just before its renaissance in the 1990s. It had “a bit of an edge to it. It seemed real to us,” he says.

As it turned out, he was not the only one who saw promise in a place many London residents dismissed as a haven for addicts and hookers.

On Dundas Street, he encountered the Old East Village Business Improvement Association, managed by Sarah Merritt, who was determined to revitalize the area. Over the next few years, the business and residents’ associations worked together, along with many partners, to bring improvements such as the Old East heritage designation in 2006 and redevelopment of the seven-acre Queens Park, adjacent to the market building in 2009.

The market became the heart of their local revitalization strategy. “Everything flows through here,” Thompson explains. “Lots of people in the neighbourhood flow through here. A lot of the businesses flow through here. Our local economic development strategy flows through here.”

Housed in the Western Fair District’s former Confederation exhibition building (built after fire destroyed the fair’s Crystal Palace in 1927), the private market was established several years ago and is currently owned by coffee entrepreneur David Cook. Thompson describes it as a small business incubator that reflects the neighbourhood’s inclusive, artsy atmosphere. Many of the businesses are food-related with a local or green twist, like one that offers home-delivery of locally produced organic products. As these businesses grow, they can move to nearby locations along Dundas.

He often meets clients at the market’s upstairs coffee shop or brings in his laptop to work. “It’s a fantastic space,” he enthuses as we admire the second floor’s high ceiling, breadth of interior space uninterrupted by walls and sun streaming through windows perched high up along the length of the building. Saturday, of course, is the main event.

He and Susan walk over around 9 a.m. and work through the crowd to another corner cafe on the main floor for a coffee. It’s the sweet spot for market regulars. Then the couple shops. “Or typically I drink coffee and chat because that’s the politician and my wife shops,” he sheepishly admits.

After touring the market we step into the cool April air to view Queen’s Park and I realize the building is not Thompson’s most favourite space. It’s not the park either, although earlier he spoke about how he likes to read there.

What really has him hooked is Old East: Its inclusiveness and proximity to downtown. Its potential. But most of all, this self-described urban enthusiast identifies with its residents’ self-reliant, can-do approach to improving their locale.

“That’s a neighbourhood,” he says. “It takes some responsibility.”

Originally Published in London Community News in 2011.