The Congo Square Market: an interview with Jhakeem Haltom

The Congo Square Market at the Southside Community Center will reopen for its third season this Friday afternoon. A collaboration between Southside Community Center, Ithaca Youth Bureau’s Paul Scheurs Memorial Program, and the Whole Community Project at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, the market’s mission is threefold: “one, to build a stronger and more self-reliant local community; two, to develop Southside’s economic base; and three, to encourage community and personal health.” Groundswell interviewed Jhakeem Haltom, the market’s founder and manager, to talk about how the market came to be and what he’s looking forward to this year.

Groundswell: How did the Congo Square market get started and what inspired you and others to create it?

Jhakeem Haltom: The name Congo Square Market is derived from the physical space located in New Orleans called Congo Square. Throughout the American institution of Slavery, Congo Square was a space in which slaves, Whites, and Native Americans could share culture without the oppressive interruption of systematic bondage. This was a place of tremendous joy and jubilation, as plans for future freedom and community development were discussed, stories of the lost past were told, and the community shared music, dance, and food. The idea is to bring this concept to Ithaca, where we can honor African-American history and create a place of convening to better develop community health within the African American population, and eventually for the community at large. All will be welcome at the market, but what people will experience is the strength within the Southside and Northside communities, rather than weaknesses that are often overemphasized.

GS: What did you use as a model or a guide?

JH: In talking to various community leaders, it has become abundantly clear that many residents in the urban downtown community are interested in exploring a healthy diet as well as building a strong community for themselves and their children to live in. Although Ithaca has a farmers market, local organic farms, and multiple grocery stores highlighting organic and natural foods, there are durable barriers hindering many people in our community from accessing those goods. The lack of affordability is time and time again revealed as the primary reason behind not buying these foods or even entering these stores. There are very real cultural barriers as well. Through Congo Square Market, we hope to make this space available by providing affordable healthy food as well a cultural bend toward this community. The cultural element will include the types of foods and goods available, music, the personal element and people working in the market. This safe space will provide a more comfortable arena for members of this community to approach the idea of community unity and healthy eating. 

GS: How has Congo Square Market grown or changed over the past two years?

JH: We realized that growing our own food was a must, so Katrina Baxter, also a co-founder of the Congo Square Market, started the Youth Farm Project, which hires youth to work on a farm that provides food to Congo Square Market as well as area schools. Last year, this was a great addition and this year promises to be bigger and better. We also have booked more bands to play at the market because we realize that this drew the maximum amount of people. We had a very professional and appealing banner made to represent out market which participants in the market will see every Friday. We have also added a few new vendors.

GS: What do you see when you visit the market?

JH: Vendors, live music and community.

GS: What are you looking forward to this year as the market enters its third year and beyond? 

JH: More live music!

Check out the Congo Square Market, 4-8 pm every Friday from May 20th to September 2nd at the Southside Community Center, 305 South Plain Street, Ithaca, NY 14850. The market is open rain or shine- rainy days will be in the gym. To learn more, check out its website and visit the market itself!