The Women’s Market – an introduction

Posted on 3. юни 2014


South end of the Women's Market in Dec 2012, awaiting demolition.

South end of the Women’s Market in Dec 2012. In winter trade is slow. Demolition hangs in the air.

The following is a good starting point about what the Women’s Market was, what happened there and why my anthropological research. It’s the first available description in English. However, more in-depth articles in English are in print and soon to appear – you can follow my page for that. For lots of little bits and pictures on everyday life at the market you can browse and like the bilingual (Bulgarian & English) Facebook page The Women’s Market.

The Women’s Market (a historical appellation) is a lively food and wares street market and one of the landmarks of Sofia of a century-long existence. It is a successor of the weekly villagers’ market of the Ottoman city, which shortly after Bulgarian independence we find located in the very central square of the city. In 1911 it was moved away from the centre in a bid to modernise and ‘Europeannise’ the capital. On its place was constructed a large covered building with specialised food-stores. Tellingly, it was named ‘The Hali’ after the Parisian street market ‘Les Halles’, which was renown in the 19th century for its then modern reconstruction into a building. The Women’s Market was moved to its present location (in fact, just 500m away). It was then at the periphery of Sofia, where new neighbourhoods were just established for the rural immigrants flocking to the fresh new state capital city. Today the market is in the very centre, albeit in its north-western segment, which is usually perceived as ‘miserable’, undeveloped and not ‘official looking’ part of the city.

The Women’s Market became an iconic place for the 1990s post-socialist city. As informal trade exploded with the massive collapse of employment, the Women’s Market became a natural main hub and even a symbol for the new era. At that time it was attracting a daily pedestrian flow equivalent to 1/5th of the metropolitan population, as well as generating its very own share of urban folklore. The dynamic area motivated all kinds of entrepreneurs to set up shop here, including recent Chinese and Arab immigrants looking for business opportunities. It also motived figures of municipal, hygiene, police and all other kinds of administrative authority to build local informal power oligopolies and establish protections on monetary flows. This comment of a resident in a streetfront block of flat, relays the atmosphere of booming in the 90s:

A that time the rent [that we could ask for our apartment on the 2nd floor] was $660, then this was a lot of money! The dollar was 2 leva. There were even people who wanted to buy or rent it as a bank office! Today this looks so insane to me! You see, there was a lot of free money then and nobody was aware what was about to happen [with everything]. This place made impressions with its concentration of people. So, if somebody had an idea that needs the presence of many people, this was the place for him. (former resident at the market street, middle age)

Today these developments have subsided. But the Women’s Market is the last area in the central city that still caters to the needs of the poorest groups of Bulgarian society – i.e. those who were left out of the economic pick-up of the 2000s: pensioners, workers in industry and menial jobs, ethnic minorities and the homeless. Together these groups constitute a sizeable portion of the population of Sofia that still brings some 70 thousand visitors per day.

The market in 2013, a few months before construction started.

The market in 2013, a few months before construction started.

My surveys indicate that visitors come from virtually the entire city. In one survey on the people coming to a tram stop from the market, from 24 people I registered 16 neighbourhoods of origin! And this is despite the existence of thousands of green grocery shops; over ten other open markets in Sofia; and the wave of supermarket openings of several big brands. Visitors give several reasons for the special effort they put in coming to this place. Foremost are the low prices.

Prices up there are double! I got grapes for 1 lev here, up at ours they ask for 3.50 for this variety. There they want for one summer to become big shots! Prices can’t be 2-3 times higher, they all get their stuff from the [regional fruit&veg trade centre] all the same. (man in his 60s)

I just bought peppers at 0.50, good ones. In Fantastiko [a supermarket chain] they were yesterday 1.09. For one lev I bought two kilograms – ok, there might be one or two for the bin. Onion – for 0.20. The potatoes – cheaper also. (middle aged woman, visits weekly)

Покритие на градския транспорт, преминаващ през спирките в двата края на пазара, 2011 г. (не вкл. метрото).

Map of Sofia showing all direct lines of public transport (in 2011, underground not present) that give access to the Women’s Market (light red area shows 500m pedestrian distance from public stops). Circles show where 24 random visitors to the market surveyed on a tram stop reported to  live and work (yellow and blue circles, respectively).

Additionally, the market has made its name as the place where one can find anything, and especially unbranded products that are becoming harder to come by elsewhere due to a modernising and globalising Bulgarian economy.

It is a peculiar space in the city. Because when you go there, you can waste several hours. You might buy yourself a fish, you might buy meat, you might get also a potato, maybe a pair of pants, curtains for your wife’s desire, you might also get yourself a pair of shoes, and get yourself jeans as well. You can get everything! (woman in her 60s, living not far away)

The Women’s Market is the only place where I could buy a sleigh for my little daughter! I wandered through all the shops in Sofia – everywhere they looked at me with astonishment. I wanted a sleigh like those in our childhood – wooden, with metal rims under. No – actually even at the Women’s there wasn’t one! There, one gypsy told me: ‘Wait for an hour, it will come from Samokov [a town 40km away, where the Roma in question still practice an ironsmith’s craft].’ (a man in his 30s, does not visit regularly)

Finally, the Women’s Market benefits from its lasting presence on this place and from the citizens’ established habits to undertake a long journey to this area for grocery shopping as was common in the socialist city.

I am born in Sofia. An original inhabitant of the Nadejda quarter. We have been coming to shop mostly here ever since I can remember! (an elderly woman, visits 2-3 times per week)

Most visitors come here with very utilitarian motives and it is rare to share an attraction by a positive social experience of the market. This is mostly expressed by younger people with a higher degree of education. They seek here exotics or authenticity. They indulge in the Women’s Market as a spectacle (although, unlike foreign visitors, they still participate in its more mundane functions of looking for the cheapest products).

At the moment you enter this market, you enter into some totally natural, unstrained, and at the same time, very artistic place. It’s just that the people here are very artistic! And your soul relaxes totally. […] This is despite their commercial goals and aims. They do it in so unaffected and spontaneous way, that you start to feel a little bit more like being yourself… in comparison with the polished city beyond. And this has charmed me very much!” (young woman, visits weekly)

na sergiia

Shopping for fruits and vegetables on the market is a very individualised experience. This attracts some citizens and repels others.

However, many people today perceive the market as dirty, ‘gypsified’ and not ‘a real market’.

A: Here is not a market! Here you won’t be able to shop in a normal way. […]

B: See what is the fame of this market: There is some people I am friends with, so one time I decide to go buy peppers from them. “Well, look, we have only bad stock here. We don’t have anything good to give you. In this place only bad produce is sold.” Or one acquaintance of mine goes to another and asks: “I want 10kg of peppers.” That one tells her: “No, not possible. I will give you only 2kg. Otherwise, after I won’t have enough good peppers to cover the pile of what I am selling. Because I want to give nice peppers to you.” Thus, this place is not for shopping! I don’t know why this masochistic Bulgarian nation comes here to shop!? I don’t know why. Is it still some sort of nostalgia or what?

A: Nostalgia, habit, the lower prices… (two women living at the market, in their 60s, not shopping there)

The fact is that the proportion of farmers selling their own produce has steadily fallen over the years (due to complex reasons) while practices of petty deception established in the 1990s have become less widespread but more visible.

As the crisis times of the 1990s passed away, street trade was gradually cleared out of the central city, while new places of consumerist culture sprouted up. The Women’s Market remains a true reminder of the Transition era. This is fortunate for Sofia’s poor, as the cheapest area in the city has not been displaced to the periphery. It continues to be at the centre of a public transport network that provides comfortable, affordable and egalitarian access from all parts of the city. Additionally, the market’s reputation, informal local authority interests, and problems with the ownership of buildings in the area (until 1948 this area was partly the Jewish neighbourhood of Sofia, and today many owners are living in Israel; this led to problematic restitution of formerly nationalised property, to frauds and court battles) have largely held investments in the area at bay, while providing housing with low or sometimes no rent for the incoming poor rural immigrants that start business or find work here. (Therefore it is also the „greenest“ employer in the city – a majority of the people have settled within 3 minutes walking distance from the market).

However, since 2006 the Women’s Market has been gradually reframed as a problem for the city. Policies have slowly made their way through municipal administration that are aiming for contraction of the market’s petty trade function and transformation of the area into a pedestrian high street, middle-class leisure zone and a symbol for the Bulgarian capital city’s “Europeanness”. This happens in the same time period as the market’s image of “Orientality” was constructed across the society. The latter discourse is clearly visible in many of my interviews with middle class citizens, in most media articles of recent years (there the journalists fume about the “the great sore” and “the beauties of orientalism in the centre of Sofia”), as well as in conversation with political figures (“Such an oriental vista in the heart of Sofia is inadmissible!” says the architect-general of the city).

Проектът за реконструкция е познат на обществеността единствено чрез няколко красиви 3D визуализации и хвалебствените описания за „улица на ресторантите”, триетажни сгради с арт-галерия, букинисти, занаяти, водни огледала  и 70% зелени площи.

The project currently under construction, which will replace another 2/3 of the market under the guise of ‘reconstruction’.

Construction work began in the summer of 2013 and should complete in early summer of 2014. Perhaps surprisingly, this was not simply a top-down decision influenced by transition to neoliberal policies in the political class but rather the result of six years of efforts of local pressure groups to pave the way for gentrification and for purging the area from an incipient multicultural character. Although the cheap area of Sofia was not displaced to the periphery, it started to bring the characteristics of a periphery to this part of the city. If, in the 1990s the market could be an engine for economic prosperity for local property owners (as in the first quote, for example), today it brings down prices in the area, creates bad image and lowers ‘quality of life’. The many of the home-owners belong to the middle classes under formation and have less and less common interests with the poorer people attracted by the market activities. The first waves of immigrant traders in the 90s (mostly Bulgarians and Turks from the country) moved up the economic ladder, moved on and were replaced by new incomers (Roma and ‘Turkish Gypsies’) that poured a fresh wave of “non-urban” culture into the area, while the toleration for it is decreasing.

All this mobilised a local activist movement in 2004-2005 to formulate a new vision for the future of the area and pressure the municipal institutions. A first victory in 2006 of removing 500 of the 800 stalls at the market alleviated most of their immediate problems. However the organisational and emotional energy gained during this struggle empowered a newborn local civil society to aspire for full and unconditional incorporation into the consumerist spaces of 21st century Sofia. While a municipality in transition to neoliberal political regimes recognized the opportunities, both economic and electoral, of ‘reconstructing’ (=repairing) the market into something ever so slightly different.

Thank you! As said before, if your interested to know more – follow my page and the Women’s Market bilingual Facebook page.