The Show Horse and the Work Horse

46 thoughts on “The Show Horse and the Work Horse”

  1. When I bought my home in Austin, I was concerned about the lack of commerce along the main drag- Montopolis Blvd. I don’t own a motor vehicle and there appeared to be 4 gas stations, the TomGro grocery store (more of a large bodega than a grocer), and a family dollar which has had “closing soon, returns not accepted” signs up for over six months. Add in a public library, a few churches, a barber shop, a sonic drive-in, a few food trucks, an Austin community college campus, a cemetery, and that’s the limit of what’s within a 15-minute walk .

    What I didn’t know, was that right there at the corner of Porter street and Montopolis Blvd, there was a huge flea market every weekend. With the best elotes I’ve had, including those I’ve had in Mexico. No need for a walmart run to get laundry detergent, batteries, blue jeans- the prices are negotiable, cash is always preferred, spanish is always accepted. The market is doing well- so well that the lot itself is totally filled, and that nearby vacant parking lots are commonly occupied by other pop-ups, where a family with a minivan or pickup truck will pop up to sell baked goods, homemade food, local produce, used and recycled clothing and other goods.

    The walkscore for my neighborhood says “car dependent”, ranging from 30 to 50- they don’t account for the fact that on saturday and sunday, there are over a dozen locally-owned businesses operating within a 5 minute walk of my front door.

    Do I buy all my essentials there? Not exactly. I get HEB to deliver about once every other month because I need egg whites, sugar-free jelly, defatted peanut dust, and some other waistline-friendly facsimiles of my favorite foods.

    But without the flea market, I’d probably need a walmart run at least every other week.

    Is it the most visually appealing public realm? No. It doesn’t hold a candle to Hamilton Avenue in Northside. It doesn’t look like a Rockwell painting.

    But it’s what rockwell would have to paint today.

    1. Very cool. And for the record, if Norman Rockwell’s equivalent can be found today she’d likely be a half Guatemalan half Vietnamese grad student from Houston – what with modern demographics and all.

  2. I always wonder about your numerous friends whose often beautiful houses you visit, photograph brilliantly, and then write about on the blog, with ever so slight an amount of disdain… How often do you get uninvited from future visits?

    My comment itself reads as criticism but I’m really just curious…

    1. The people who have me in their homes know me well enough to understand what they’re getting into. I’m too weird for anyone to take me too seriously. Being irrelevant has its advantages. I don’t write with disdain so much as pragmatic curiosity. But yes, once in a while I do rub someone the wrong way.

  3. I came across zinc countertops. The French use them, apparently – some are over 100 years old in France. Used on roofs, as well… They come in rolls and you can cover up your old crap countertops (the formica ones, etc). They will stain and scratch but the texture changes constantly after each wipe down that it’s part of the character. In a perverse way, a countertop that constantly changes its looks is less noticeable than a nice marble countertop with an obvious stain.

    My 45 year old orange formica countertops are still going well but I intend to cover them with the zinc when they finally look terrible. Or maybe use new formica! My mom has granite countertops but too much care is needed. Formica is not as pretty but a better material for heavy use vs granite.

  4. Thanks for the great post!

    I believe similar things happen in website development, especially the design part. It may be a “candy” – the website that looks quite modern, with top-notch style, etc. But it may not provide you with the information you expect(ed) to see.

    On the contrary, you have a “work horse” website – it may not look stylish, but contains everything you need in a simple and easily accessible way.

    The most difficult task here is probably finding the right balance between the two.

  5. That reminds me of the old market on the streets of NYC’s Lower East Side. Pushcarts and wagons selling fruit and nuts, irregular clothes, books, household gizmos and just about everything else lined the streets. It was all about haggling. I gather that by the 1930s, the carts and wagons were only allowed on one side of the street. The merchants all wanted them on their side because they drove foot traffic. They were supposedly cleaned up in the 1950s when they built the Essex Street Market, but that was probably about moving meat and fish vendors off the street so they could have proper refrigeration.

    I remember visiting in the 60s and 70s, and the market was still pretty lively then.
    The merchandise was cheap enough, especially if you were willing to bargain. Back when NYC was still a clothing production center, a lot of the garments were factory rejects, so inexpensive but likely to have problems. I remember getting my father a twelve pack of underwear for a dollar. They even had his size, and eight of them were good enough for him to wear. Americans aren’t used to bargaining nowadays, but I learned it as a child, and it has been a useful skill.

    I gather the Paris flea markets are more about antiques, but I’ll bet they started out as markets to meet a need rather than as a specialized shopping destination.

    P.S. There are good arguments for granite countertops if you cook a lot. I’ve had other materials and they just can’t take the abuse I dish out when cooking. Call me a klutz or an incompetent, but the food is good. Stone seems to last for decades.

  6. It appears from the comments here that commenters think this blog entry is about the pros and cons of marble countertops. Seems that they’ve missed the point that you are trying to make here Johnny- Maybe they should reread slowly and reflect-just sayin’

    1. It’s what’s relevant to them. Most readers of this blog are going to make a decision about what kind of countertops to have at some point in their lives. So it’s an advantage to them to learn about countertop choices, and many already have something to contribute. OTOH, almost no reader is going to be on a planning committee deciding whether to permit a flea market on an unused parking lot, never mind dealing with even more complex matters like figuring out alternative ways to meet these needs if and when those parking lots go bye-bye.

      This includes me. I did some research when we did my kitchen remodel, 20 years after we decided we wanted one (yeah, I procrastinate) and ended up with some quartz composite countertop which *look* like marble but which are nearly impervious to anything I could do to harm them. But I almost never go to flea markets of the type described (my city council is allergic to this kind of thing). I recognize that, logically, those kinds of parking lots really should be redeveloped into something of more value, but I don’t know what you’d do with this kind of useful business then. My only idea is that in some ethnic neighborhoods around here smaller and failing malls sometimes get converted into something similar.

      There’s a deeper philosophical point, to which most people can’t add to what Johnny has already said. That includes me. It’s a good point, though!

  7. There is a site I enjoy Core77 (a product design portal) and you would be a great contributor to the site if you have any interest. I love your work, keep it up and God’s speed.

  8. So why don’t local governments embrace more of this sort of pop up grass roots mom and pop enterprise?
    I really dig visiting those southern California flea markets, but I don’t really think they are the answer to much of anything. The prices are comparatively terrible, the food costs 85% as much as a ritzy food truck which is more expensive than fast food but cheaper than sit-down chains. That’s a pretty tight pricing range. There would also be no reason to go to these food places if you are not at the swap meet, same as you don’t go to eat at the mall without the draw of visiting the stores.

    To get more into the pricing, yes you can get new stuff, but it’s also about 85%-90% of Wal-Mart prices for something like a mattress but with no warranty or any other support and questionable origin. Is it brand new? Well they say it is….. Totally buyer-beware. Also most of the products are haggle pricing, which means if you ask someone how much an unboxed half-broken toy is they will say $25 when the original price was $15. Then you have to haggle your way down to $12, its actual worth.

    Most are also set up on parking lots that are used throughout the week rather than dedicated space. They are weekend-only.

    I actually get why governments keep these places at the fringes. Middle class shoppers with choice would crush these places with middle-class expectations about shopping and ‘value’.
    However I think that other regions outside of southern California could support more of these places. Where I live they are basically non-existent.

  9. Julia must be Italian-American. She needs that second “summer kitchen” down in the basement.

    Back in the day, in the first flush of movement into the middle class, you also had the living room you weren’t allowed to go in, because it was for company, and the dining room you weren’t allowed to go in, because it was for company. The living room couches has slip covers.

    And federal requirements that houses have living rooms and dining rooms, because otherwise the then (as now) government-owned Fannie and Freddie wouldn’t lend, because they were be worried about re-sale value.

    Most of that is gone now, but granite and marble countertops have taken their place. In our case, we decided to go with formica. It won’t last forever, but it’s cheap so you won’t feel so bad down the road if you want to change. That was 25 years ago, and it’s still the same formica.

  10. I don’t know what the demographic for Disneyland is anymore, but it passed me by. I visited twice as a child, and took my kids there twice too. Now it’s time for the grand kids, so I started to plan. The plan fell apart when I found that just the admission for 4 over two days was nearly $1000. Not the travel, not the lodging, not the food, just stepping into the park. Time to defrost Walt and get him back on the job.

    1. Ha! I love that myth about poor old Walt in the Cryovac chamber. It’s not true of course, but it makes such a great story.

      Two weeks ago I took a young relative to the Walt Disney Museum here in San Francisco. $35 per person. It was actually really well done. It wasn’t about Disneyland or the larger Disney empire so much as Walt himself and his life.

      He’s become a kind of Betty Crocker or Jolly Green Giant. A recognizable brand that leaves you with a vague warm fuzzy feeling. The reality of the corporation is another thing altogether.

      1. There’s a running joke that Disney named the Pixar movie with the Norwegian princesses and talking snowman what they did so that it’d bury the cryogenic conspiracy theory in Google search results for “Disney Frozen”.

    2. The demographic for Disney is people short on time and willing to take a long trip to see it, basically. If you’re already paying $300 a person for airfare, already going to pay at least several hundred for a non-scary hotel, and only get 2 weeks per year for all vacations anyway, Disney hitting you up for another $1000 is not a crazy expense. It doesn’t make sense for the poor, the frugal, or the locals anymore, but with 7 billion people in the world Disney keeps its parks full anyway. My brother, who fits the bill of somebody elsewhere with a decent amount of money but not much time, has taken his kids to Disney on multiple occasions. They had a great time, and thought it was well worth it (although my sister in law did talk about “can you BELIEVE how much they charge just to get into the park!”)

      1. My mom worked at Disneyland in the early 1970s when I was a kid. We used to get in for free. I’ve long been tempted to write about the behind-the-scenes activities at The Mouse from those days, but Disney Corp is notoriously litigious…

        1. I point you to your post above about the advantages of being “irrelevant” and encourage you to test those writing waters, Johnny!

            1. If you never mention the mouse, but tell stories about a Southern California amusement park, what’s actionable? You might be talking about Knott’s or Magic Mountain or any number of other places.

            2. Here’s a funny story about Big Corporations in general. In Tulsa, there is a company called Willbros that my brother worked at for a short time. Their company symbol is similar to the “WB on a shield” that most people associate with Warner Bros. Studios. At some point in the 1990s, Warner Bros. legal department found out about it and sent them a cease and desist letter concerning the use of the logo.

              It turns out that Willbros owns the copyright to their logo, having used it since before Warner Bros was created. The Willbros attorneys sent a letter back to Warner Bros that read something like, “we have owned the copyright to this logo since 19xx”. They never heard back from the Warner Bros. legal team. I always get a kick out of that story.

  11. I thought the whole point of sealing marble (or, in fact, any stone countertop) is to get rid of this fragility. Does it work or not?

    And a question about the flea market: is it permanent?

    1. This flea market is “temporary” in the sense that it only operates on certain days of the week rather than full time and it can close at any time if the owner of the land finds a higher or better use for the property. It’s also composed of movable structures with almost no permanent infrastructure. It’s just a parking lot.

      On the other hand, it’s “permanent” in the sense that it keeps on keeping on year after year. It’s a gray area. It has a low burn rate and can ride out economic cycles. I think that’s why it works.

      I could provide a long list of strip malls and big box stores that opened and closed in less time than this flea market has existed. So what’s “permanent?” Just sayin’.

  12. Trying to keep marble countertops pristine seems to be a very American mindset. In France and Italy where they are common it’s my understanding that wear, stains and other imperfections are considered “character” and indicative of an owner who cooks well and often.

  13. “Too good to use”…”too big to fail”…. Our society has too many “toos”. 😉

    We have a flea market that is much like that here in Tulsa (actually indoor in an old strip mall). Not enough good food but a lot of shopping for tools, furniture, and just the stuff of life. Here’s hoping it never goes away.

  14. I love this, Johnny. What it feels like is all the geniuses are sitting around scratching their heads trying to figure out problems like neighborhood planning, low-income housing, employment needs meeting industry needs, etc. – and something like this flea market just quietly pops out of nowhere and starts providing decent answers to all of it, all at once.

    It reminds me of the Jeff Goldblum’s pithy conclusion in Jurassic Park: Life finds a way. If you can relax control on the universe just a little, the individual pieces will show you how they would like to operate.

    Without taking this sentiment too far, I believe it would be wise for the proverbial heads of state to look around and see what works – and then try to mold their governing body of regulations around it. I realize both form and function are important, but that dance can be done if both sides have the will.

    The other requirement of course is that the parties involved have to care about more than just making a profit and being comfortable. We’ll see…

  15. I can’t help but imagine that this flexible, responsive market will be a huge component of commerce of the future, as we have a more mobile population migrating because of climate change.

    1. Nancy- let’s hope so. It won’t just be climate change however, but also living on a planet with finite resources that we are quickly depleting. We are on a slow but steady downward slope. The thing I appreciate about Johnnys blog posts is looking at creative solutions to the changes we’re all facing as a result of climate change, diminishing resources and beaurocratic red tape. The economic division between haves and have-nots will become more apparent but I want to believe that the have- nots will continue to create sub rosa (sp?) solutions.

      1. We’re increasingly going to feel the effects of resource depletion and disruptions from the natural world, but people won’t necessarily interpret them as such. Instead these externalities will present themselves as economic and political troubles. We’ll stumble half assed from one crisis to another.

        We can embrace these challenges or stubbornly cling to the status quo and lash out at scapegoats. As a society it looks like we’re going the lash and goat route. Shrug. I have no control over any of that and can’t be bothered to hand-wring. I do what I can at the household level. That’s my best option.

        1. Johnny- I couldn’t agree with you more-household self reliance is the way to go. I also like to see sub rosa solutions- creative and fills a need.

  16. Interesting analogy. Flea markets: the original guerilla urbanism. I love them, but often I realize I’ve been corralled into their show horse cousin, the antique market. It’ll still be called a flea market of course. There’s also the tourist market, which comes about when rents are high but tourists are plentiful. I encountered an idyllic one in Cambridge UK last year. I got to chatting with one of the stall owners. He said he can’t afford to live and work in the area anymore and would be closing soon:

  17. Pristine, marble looks nice, but worn, aged marble also looks nice too. Its only that immediate first step of a wine or acid stain before the whole thing has gotten worn in that looks shocking. Europeans use marble all over for doorways, entrance halls, cooking counters and its all worn and it looks fine when worn in.

  18. Show horses have some pluses, for sure, but the lack of anxiety and chill attitude about work horses is awesome. I bought a new BMW earlier in my life, but eventually got sick of always keeping it washed and cleaned, worrying about people dinging it with shopping carts or keying it, the high insurance and premium gasoline. I’ve had cheap hatchbacks ever since and it’s been awesome; they do everything the BMW could, plus more, with no worry.

    Hatchbacks definitely aren’t as good of a fitness indicator though.

    1. Me too, exactly!

      And once you got past BMW’s “covers everything but (premium) gas warranty” any repairs will be shockingly expensive.

  19. Also, the flea market probably operates mostly on cash (i.e. gray or shadow economy). Did you notice any great concern by merchants or government with licensing or sales tax collection, (which are the only ways for governments to skim off such an operation)?

  20. That kitchen looks like something out of HGTV. The Julia Child pegboard is a hoot and perfectly captures your point.

    Our countertops are “quartz”, crushed color-separated recycled glass mixed with some dye, fused into a material not unlike terrazzo, and polished. If there is something we cook with that affects them negatively, we haven’t found it yet.

  21. Agree with the thoughts but we have marble bench tops and table tops and they are great, we use them constantly for cooking, homework, model making and everything else. The shine has gone off them but they look even better with a honed finish. Much better than most other surfaces, not affected by heat or water and look great. Wine stains disappear in a few days., lemon juice – just wipe in up within a few hours. Much better than wooden bench tops or tables. Enjoy the stone.

    1. “My Takeaway So Far: If you are OK with countertops looking a bit scratched up, and developing a patina of use over the years, then marble may be for you. If you want them perfectly glossy all the time, then perhaps not.
      Also, I discovered that honed countertops (the more matte, less shiny finish that comes from abrading the stone) can be much more kitchen-friendly.”

  22. Excellent post, so interesting. I love flea markets, I enjoy shopping at them. Oh those marble worktops!!!! I use the kitchen to cook and eat and chat and do crafts on the table with young relatives – quite the opposite!

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