Maine Articles > "To Jumpstart Livelihoods, Create A True Marketplace"

Article advocating a street market in Portland to act as conduit for small businesses to move from home to stall to storefront.

To Jumpstart Livelihoods, Create A True Marketplace
By Michael Belleau copyright 2001

What do you do when you have nothing: no job, money, higher education or particular skills?

You can attempt to get a low-wage job- say in fast food- or look for handouts. And while many of us have a career or two, many other Mainers lead simpler lives, lives that are productive and engaging, but which the shoe called career never quite fit.

These days, high school graduates are under enormous pressure to pick a career and go to college to learn it. In America, we are expected to take out huge loans and then have some vague notion of our intended profession at the end.

But when we go for our first job interview, we have no experience and at 21 we are like 10-year-olds.

For most American families, there is no daily life for children around working adults, which would help to educate and inform young people about the working world around them, and cultivate their interests for the future.

American life- middle class life- depends almost exclusively on an academic path to choosing a career, leaving a whole underclass and middle class of people to fend for themselves.

Instead of career choice in the form of textbooks, we need to offer children daily exposure to careers and the American workplace. And not just through field trips.

We offer community college as a great opportunity to learn web design or some other vocation, but with an assumption that there is money available to start an enterprise.

Where do we go to start making money to eat and cover other basic needs?

Marketplaces have traditionally served this function. In the third world, they are places of commerce. In European cities, there are many marketplaces, such as Portabello Road in London (watch Disney's "Beadknobs And Broomsticks"), in which a person can attempt to make money from imagination with little capital.

Without these marketplaces we have no mechanism to start the process of success from scratch.

I propose that Portland make a big space for a marketplace, say six to ten times the size of Monument Square. A location within walking distance to the Old Port is key, but marketplaces can be in any area. They do not call for precious sites like the Old Port.

I have been to many markets in Europe, which you come upon by walking through the streets. These are dynamic places. Indoor markets, such as Fanueil Hall in Boston or the GUM in Moscow are one or two levels up from the starter stall of the street market. Frankly, they don't count as marketplaces in the traditional sense.

They are more like malls, and that is why the wonderful Portland Public Market (since closed a few years after this article was published) does not work as a market but more as a mall with restaurants and outlet stalls. This market has done great things by placing a public place in an area in need.

I lived in London for a short time and used to go to the Camden Market in the Camden Town section of the city on Saturdays. There, all kinds of products were for sale, and you could always find something someone made or resold that you needed.

It might be a sweater, socks, jewelry, books, or things completely invented by creative people, who all looked different from each other and had different temperaments and attitudes.

It is no secret that clothing designers go to marketplaces to discover the next trend.

When I walk into a marketplace I always feel I am in the beating heart of life itself. A thriving human life, unpredictable and yet continuously celebrating human existence.

A marketplace is the perfect petri dish for enterprise to grow. It is a seemingly chaotic system based on simple rules of stall and product that achieves remarkable success because it is always changing and adapting.

The relatively new science called, "complexity", used by economists, shows us that a healthy macrosystem such as an economy can only be achieved through a large number of very small changing events.

Success at the marketplace micro level can lead to opening a shop on Congress Street with a good chance at success.

Without a micro success, macro successes are reserved for the gifted business person or the person with startup capital he can afford to lose.

The marketplace is not just for those without money. A person from a household with some means may want to stay at home and knit sweaters that she can sell at a stall, her children by her side.

Our education and career systems train us to go to school every day and learn how to focus for long periods of time in order to pick a career and then go to work from 9 to 5 and behave within very strict, "norms".

But people are all very different from one another and one person's normal is not necessarily another's. Employers expect a person to show up at a certain time and behave a certain way. Marketplaces are performance based. They allow for quirks in behavior and changing patterns of sales techniques.

Our fixation on careers bypasses the most critical component of free enterprise: the mechanism to start from scratch with no established path of study.

Creating a marketplace is like handing everyone a fishing pole instead of handing out fish.

To Jumpstart Livelihoods, Create A True Marketplace