Philly Food Trust’s Night Market: A Quintessentially Philly Tradition

“Night Market sets out to prove that food celebrations are more than just celebrations of cheesesteaks and pizza, that “festival food” does not have to be limited to just chicken fingers and funnel cakes, that Philadelphia has a lot more to offer including fresh, local, amazing, diverse food and culture.” - Diana Minkus, Project Manager for The Food Trust

 

South Street is well-known as an alternative streetscape - where punk culture, colorful condom shops and colonial architecture coalesce in unique Philly fashion. On Thursday, August 15, the eclectic and enigmatic cultural backdrop of South Street hosted The Food Trust’s Night Market on South Street (NMSS), drawing nearly 37,000 people. Market-goers filled South Street from Front Street to 9th Street. The largest Night Market event to date, NMSS boasted over 80 local food trucks and vendors, two stages hosting continuous live music and a variety of stationary and roaming art exhibitions.

The Food Trust hosts four Night Markets annually from May through October, each showcasing a neighborhood’s local food and community culture. The series is funded partially through The William Penn Foundation and receives additional funding from event sponsorships and market vendor fees. After three years and eleven successful markets in neighborhoods including Chinatown, Mt. Airy, West Philly and Northern Liberties, the series has evolved to incorporate art and music exhibits into the series’ encapsulation of each neighborhood.

As the Project Manager and founder of the Night Market series, The Food Trust’s Diana Minkus approaches the multi-step planning process of coordinating Night Markets with the help of several key city partnerships. For each market event, Minkus works with an established community partner organization. The community partner is selected to help support local restaurants and businesses from their neighborhood who have agreed to participate in the upcoming Night Market. “We never wants to have a community feel like we’re bombarding or taking over their neighborhood with Night Market,” Minkus says. “We work to make it their neighborhood event.”

 

For NMSS, The Food Trust partnered with the event’s community sponsor, South Street Headhouse District, to coordinate logistics with local food vendors and businesses attending the market. The Food Trust also worked with Philadelphia Magic Gardens to curate art exhibitions and musical entertainment throughout the NMSS space. Diana Minkus and The Food Trust also partnered with city security personnel and waste management services to ensure that NMSS maintained high levels of both event safety and cleanliness.

NMSS astounded my expectations. The event revolutionized a familiar street, transforming a destination known for its predictable oddities and grittiness into an urbane food mecca. NMSS also helped to solidify a short-lived identity for South Street, maximizing its potential as a motley arrangement of attractive businesses. The resulting transformation left many market-goers, myself among them, wondering, “Why can’t South Street always be like this?”, a street that accurately reflects the lively legacies of surrounding South Philly and Society Hill.

My experience digging NMSS dared me to contemplate an intriguing question,”Is the Night Market series becoming a quintessentially Philly tradition?” The answer is difficult to determine. The reason for this difficulty is partially because real Philly traditions are determined over time and Night Market is only three years old. That said, something about Night Market screams Philadelphia. The reason for this phenomenon is simple - no other city on the east coast is currently offering an umbrella event series that hosts individual events that celebrate neighborhood food and culture.

Comparing Philadelphia’s Night Market series to other urban food festivals helps to strengthen this claim. New York City has a variety of independent neighborhood food festivals but they do not have a traveling food event unified under one series. Though smaller than Philadelphia, Boston does not currently host Night Markets. And while Boston has great food festivals such as their summer celebration in the Italian North End, the city lacks a cohesive series that presents the unique array of local, neighborhood eats and sensory treats.

Outside of Philly, there is also a rising popularity of mega food festivals. The best examples are events like The Great GoogaMooga in NYC and Taste of Chicago in the Windy City. Again, these food fests are fantastic festivals for these cities, drawing huge crowds and musical acts for weekends of revelry and food indulgence. And while Philly could easily host a mega event in our city (The Roots Picnic is not actually a food festival) Philly is keeping it fresh with Night Market. Always proud to be different from NYC, our city is opting for smaller, more frequent food celebrations that remain intimate and soulful, unadulterated by flocking tourists and corporate food presence. This local angle is a crucial component of both The Food Trust’s and community partner’s mission for hosting Night Market.

 

Yes, neighborhood pride is as old in Philadelphia as the fight between South Philly’s best cheesesteak. Traditionally, a Philadelphian’s pride has been rooted in one’s neighborhood,  connected to the larger city’s spirit through an unabashed adoration for our sports teams. But Night Market is offering an alternatively unifying event, bringing neighborhoods together through the celebration of food. After several years of offering Night Market, other cities are finally beginning to take note of Philly’s evolving tradition -- Diana Minkus, has worked with various food organizers from Detroit and New York City along with countless local food champions from The Greater Philadelphia area. Minkus uses Night Market as an example of an innovative approach for uniting neighborhoods and city residents through food.

While it is still too soon to rule on whether Night Market is truly a Philadelphia tradition, the series is succeeding. The Food Trust hopes that their organization will continue receiving  funding over the coming years as they aim to expand their series, achieving greater popularity with each additional market event. The Food Trust’s next Night Market will occur on Thursday, October 3rd in Chinatown where they will be partnering with Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. October’s Night Market Chinatown will be the 12th Night Market to date and the third market held in Chinatown since 2011. It will also be the last market spectacle of the season, an opportunity for you to celebrate Chinatown and Philadelphia for all its worth.

Andrew Schlesinger is a passionate environmental thinker and designer. He can be contacted at mailto:andrewpschlesinger@gmail.com