A recent push by the City of Austin to study public safety improvements for downtown’s East Sixth Street entertainment district following a string of shootings already has lots of ideas on the table — including a wider variety of cultural activities on the street, rezoning for additional commercial or even residential development, and encouraging more diverse uses for the area’s many historic storefronts beyond the near-identical string of bars currently running the show. It all sounds like a step in the right direction, but since these plans are still pretty firmly up in the air, we’d like to humbly offer our own suggestion: Night market.
A hallmark of urban life and a growing tourist attraction in cities throughout East and Southeast Asia, night markets are essentially street markets or other congregations of vendors in parks or public squares operating past traditional working hours late into the evening. These markets offer a wide variety of food, clothing, and other wares from temporary stalls or other ad hoc locations on the street, typically run by small working-class vendors selling to a diverse and often youthful crowd.
Even the most regulated night markets are predicated on informality, with at least some degree of organized chaos necessary to maintain the atmosphere providing the event with its specific cultural appeal — they are vibrant social spaces, transforming even mundane streets after dark with an exciting new context.
With inexpensive food and merchandise, night markets traditionally provide a refuge for the working class and particularly migrant workers seeking to make ends meet in the big cities. Like other forms of street market, night markets can provide an important source of income for small businesses and are a critical part of the local economy . . . By occupying places intended for other uses, they create “loose spaces” in an otherwise regimented city. As events and activities, night markets are manifestations of “temporary urbanism” that challenge the conventional thinking in urban planning.
Staging a night market on East Sixth Street during weekend closures to car traffic represents an ideal activation of public space due to its ability to moderate behavior and enhance public safety, while remaining acceptably close to the atmosphere that currently provides cultural appeal to both locals and tourists alike. The innate difficulty of public safety improvements on Sixth Street stems from the fact that the area’s popularity is in no small part due to its sense of danger — not the danger represented by recent shootings, but rather the feeling of lawlessness and authenticity inherent to a bustling pedestrianized entertainment district where public intoxication and other rowdiness is generally tolerated within reason.
The atmosphere of a night market, as suggested by the current popularity of food vendors, buskers, and other forms of loosely-regulated street activity on Sixth, could harness this “dangerous” atmosphere while attracting a less single-minded audience. Such an activation would require a relatively low barrier to entry for its vendors — regulatory obstacles more easily navigated by larger commercial entities over small, unique operators could defeat the purpose of the market, resulting in a more homogenous environment with lower social value. As part of the city’s pilot program for improvements to the district, a process of vendor licensure with specific assistance for low-income sellers, artists, and other non-traditional “micro-entrepreneurs” to ensure diversity of offerings would maintain the market’s sense of authenticity, critical for successful integration into an existing cultural space.
The presence of vendors adjacent to operating bars might require a degree of extra security or modifications to existing enforcement strategies, but perhaps only at first. The market’s appeal to a wider demographic than the current nighttime offerings of the district could quickly provide a moderating effect on the public environment, changing not only the street presence but the clientele of adjacent bars and restaurants — and this possibility suggests additional partnership opportunities for area business owners, another factor critical to the night market’s ongoing success.
Regular night markets are popular around the globe, but especially in Asia. Could they become a natural fit in Seattle?
— The Urbanist (@UrbanistOrg) August 30, 2021
Efforts to recreate these Asian-style markets in America could provide more insight, with some local events already hosted periodically — but a more constant presence on East Sixth Street has the potential to become a cherished Austin cultural institution while quietly enhancing public safety downtown. What more could you want?