SoWa: The hidden gem of the South End

I wrote this piece for my summer session 1 Feature Writing class and got an A on it (YAY!) so I figured if my journalism professor thinks it’s okay, it must be decent enough to publish on my blog. I  haven’t had time to do much cooking since summer session 2 started, so here’s something for the time being…

A swarm of people, dogs, and running children surround you as you walk toward white tent after white tent. From far away it’s difficult to distinguish them, but up close, under each tent, there is something unique—a fellow Bostonian proudly displaying his or her craft, each item one of a kind.

Your olfactory senses go on overdrive as hundreds of different smells waft toward you with each food truck you pass—the scent of a wood burning fire pizza oven, rosemary dusted French fries, butter browning as it forms the perfect crust on the cheesiest grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever seen. The colors too are vibrant and in every shade imaginable—whether it’s a pint of just-picked strawberries so juicy they temporarily stain your finger tips red, to an overstuffed red velvet cookie with purple cow ice cream sandwich, to the rainbow of brightly-painted, eye-catching food trucks, virtually every color on the wheel is represented. Movement is constant as people, children, and dogs flow from vendor to vendor oooh-ing and awww-ing, picking up, trying on, smelling, tasting, and ultimately purchasing items that please them.

Strawberry, goat cheese, caramelized onion, and arugula pizza from Vesta Mobile Wood-Fired Pizza

Strawberry, goat cheese, caramelized onion, and arugula flatbread from Vesta Mobile Wood-Fired Pizza

The largest ice cream sandwich I've ever seen: red velvet cookie with purple cow ice cream.

The largest ice cream sandwich I’ve ever seen: red velvet cookie with purple cow ice cream.

Every Sunday at 460 Harrison Avenue, three ordinary paved parking lots are transformed into this bustling market for those seeking fresh produce, handmade arts and crafts from local artisans, a unique food truck meal, and much more. Now in its tenth year, this open market, which stands for “South of Washington Street,” is open every Sunday in the South End from 10am-4pm. New this year, the market is separated into three different lots; the handmade crafts, farmer’s market, and food truck sections are all separated by a block or two, allowing the market to have expanded and making it easier to navigate for customers.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the number of artists and the crowd size,” said Boston University student Nikki Jenner. There are all kinds of vendors at SoWa—farm and food, gourmet and kitchen products, bath and body, antique and vintage, fashion trucks, fair-trade, and eco friendly handmade import vendors.

The SoWa Farmers Market is a juried market, so it is required that independent designers submit an application and pay a fee in order to become a vendor. Additionally, they must commit to a minimum of five dates. And the open market does go on rain or shine. According to Helen Schroeder of Linden Leaf designs, “getting accepted to sell at SoWa is quite a stamp of approval in the Boston indie arts community—almost like a rite of passage. I get the sense that having this opportunity under my belt will open doors in other places.”

The market appeals to people of all ages, from kids enjoying the gourmet food samples being offered to them, to the elderly checking out vintage, one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry, to all ages in between. “[The market] was set up in a neat way, and to just aimlessly meander and look at some of the trinkets and thingamabobs was really cool,” said Ethan Rimdzius, a student at Boston University.

Ethan was hungry.

Ethan was hungry.

The open market is an unusual place for both customers and crafters alike. Schroeder sells most of her work—handmade paper designs—online and on wholesale or consignment, so she typically does not get to experience much customer interaction. However, SoWa provides her with a means to communicate face-to-face with customers.

“I believe there’s something so valuable in being able to look at and question and talk to the person who has made the object you hold in your hand, whether it’s art or furniture or food,” said Schroeder. From the opposite perspective, too, it’s also valuable for artists to observe customers interacting with their work, to see what gets them particularly excited and what they’re specifically looking for. As Schroeder says, “It’s the best kind of ‘market research’ there is.”

Since the artists must commit to several Sundays, visitors, such as Jenner, have the chance to come back and check out any booths they previously enjoyed and to see if anything new was added. “There are a few artists’ booths that I look forward to keeping up with to see upcoming creations,” she noted.

Admiring the plethora of local designers' jewelry. Photo courtesy of Ethan R.

Admiring the plethora of local designers’ jewelry. Photo courtesy of Ethan R.

While some visit SoWa to shop for gifts, others, such as Jenner, simply stop by for a bite to eat. “Nowhere else in the city can you find a gathering of [food trucks] this size and with such variety. There is something for everyone to eat and it’s all so delicious,” she continued.

“The food truck culture in Boston is amazing and I love getting the chance to trade food with other trucks and meet new people at SoWa,” said Emily Sanchez, Assistant Manager of the popular Roxy’s Grilled Cheese Truck.

While working SoWa can be exhausting, it is also a rewarding experience for those inside the truck or behind the craft table. “SoWa shifts can be a million times crazier than any other shift—which is part of the fun I think,” disclosed Sanchez. “You just have to keep working for four to five hours nonstop, and of course by the end you’re sort of brain-dead, but so are your coworkers and it’s okay.”

Fresh produce from the SoWa farmer's market. Strawberries so ripe and juicy they stain your fingers red immediately. Photo courtesy of Ethan R.

Fresh produce from the SoWa farmer’s market. Strawberries so ripe and juicy they stain your fingers red immediately. Photo courtesy of Ethan R.

As a downside, the hand-made crafts at SoWa can be a bit pricey as they are all homemade, thus they could potentially be out of the typical college student’s price range. However, the market is not in an area of Boston that is dominated by that age group. The other drawback about SoWa is its location. While the vibe of the market does mirror the general feel of the South End—eclectic, artsy, edgy—the market’s location is less than convenient, making the journey there and back a bit unappealing for those residing in Back Bay, Fenway/Kenmore, Brookline, and Cambridge. However, the MBTA bus system can get you there without too much hassle.

Despite the location, taking part of your Sunday to check out all that SoWa has to offer is “a great way to support local, smaller businesses,” said Sanchez.

Boston is very lucky to have such a well-run open market that seems to draw an enormous crowd every weekend to a part of Boston that typically is under-recognized. According to Schroeder, “To me, a morning at SoWa is the quintessential summer day in Boston.”

Click here to see the SoWa website!


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