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 became an iconic place for the 1990s post-socialist city. At that time it was attracting a daily pedestrian flow equivalent to 1/5 th of the metropolitan population, as well as generating its very own share of urban folklore. A mixture of small shops established themselves in the surrounding streets. Here opened their business the consecutive waves of Vietnamese, Chinese and Arab immigrants. The market itself is an opportunity for diverse groups of Roma to get self-employment and to settle in a central urban neighbourhood, outside of the ghetto.
Today it 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 economical pick-up of the 2000s: pensioners, workers in industry and menial jobs, ethnic minorities and the homeless (still a sizable portion of Sofia’s inhabitants). Prices at the market are on average half of those at other fresh produce markets in the city, largely due to the high turnover. Just before reconstruction began, the pedestrian flow at the market still measured up to 80 thousand people per day. As one of my informants said: “It is the People’s Mall.”
However, since 2005 the Women’s Market has been reframed as a problem for the city. As new places of consumerist culture have been sprouting up and many of the stalls and markets that mushroomed on central streets in the 1990s, have been reduced, regulated or straight out cleared out, the Women’s Market began to look more and more like the odd man out. Policies were instituted for radical contraction of the market’s petty trade function and transformation of the area into middle-class leisure zone and a symbol for the Bulgarian capital city’s “Europeanness”.
Perhaps surprisingly, this was not simply a top-down decision 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. It is an interesting case where some of the local home-owners have succeeded in implementing their group interests into municipal policy in the context of an institutional environment that is widely believed to be rather closed and unresponsive to civil activism.
The market is a place of paradoxes. While a city councillor would deplore the criminality and contraband that are linked to the market, his very grandmother would shop there “illegal” garden tomatoes from village grandmas running from municipal inspectors and fees. Nearby, police officers would chat amicably with end dealers of untaxed cigarettes. While media whips up alarm about “gypsification” and “ghettoisation” of this central city, a local municipal officer would be helping out destitute Roma families to squat listed municipal properties…
This diversity of ordeals, practices and peoples is threatened by the uniform shadow of reconstruction (a municipal speak aimed at confusing the locals about their future here and defusing mobilisation potential). Construction began in the summer of 2013 and should complete in early summer of 2014.
The Unseen Market is project undertaken by an independent group of artists and social scientists and engages with a process of urban change in Sofia. It documents the microcosm of a very special urban space in the months just before it is drastically transformed by an urban renewal plan. The project aims to tell the intimate story of the locals, to get the public to know them, their values, and the challenges they face in their daily life that is now threatened. Through a variety of media (film, photography, sound, interactive installation, mapping, urban interventions) it demonstrates to the public the importance for many of the city’s inhabitants of such urban spaces of social mixing and diversity that are feared by the middle class and the governors. The project crosses all kinds of borders: between social strata of the city and the barriers of prejudice; borders between social sciences, art and activism; between material and digital art and communication with the public; between the notion of present and that of community heritage and past.