When I was a high school junior in 1949, one of our assignments in English class was to write an autobiography. A portion of my life story was about visiting the old Sixth Street Market with my mother and little sister. In 1936, our family had finally left the home of relatives during the Great Depression and rented a one-room flat on Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati. My 20-something father had a job on the WPA and my teenage mother made the one room into a comfortable home and took care of my sister (age two) and me (age four). Since we didn’t have an ice-box, one of our daily chores was to walk about 4 blocks to the Sixth Street Market to get our supply of perishable food. My father would tell my mother what to fix for supper, give her a list of ingredients and the money to cover it, and we made our way through the city streets which were completely unfamiliar to my mother and her small-town upbringing. Since my memory at age 16 was much sharper than it is now, I’m offering my chapter on this experience from my 1949 high school autobiography, exactly as I wrote it then. Accompanying the piece are pen and ink sketches I did in 1992, using old Cincinnati photographs as my reference.
“One of my earliest memories is that of going to the Sixth Street market with Mother and Shirley. Each day we took the trip and made our rounds of the stores. In the butcher shop, the friendly butcher always presented Shirley and me with a fat, juicy hot dog. You can imagine what kind of picture we presented walking along the street, hanging onto the handles of Mother’s shopping bags, munching hot dogs.
Sixth Street market was a fascinating place, always bubbling over with loud-mouthed vendors who tried to out-do each other in shouting their bargains. I can remember the outdoor stalls and the piles of fruits and vegetables each one contained. The apples and oranges were wrapped in flimsy, red tissue paper, and an abundance of these wrappers could be found laying on the pavement near the stalls. The vendors of oranges or lemons were always anxious to cut one of the fruits in half in order to show the good quality of their products.
There was a row of little shops along the street and we frequented all of them.
One shop was full of poultry products. Cages of cackling chickens were setting all around the room. That queer, stale odor that goes with fowls filled the shop and floated out of the open door into the crowded street. Men with blood splattered aprons were on hand to kill any chicken the customer might desire. Fresh eggs could also be purchased as well as fat ducks. The chatter of the men, the demands of the customers, and the quacks and clucks of the fowls added to the general confusion of the shop.
In the very middle of the square was a huge meat house. It was very quiet and cool in the house, and it proved to be a welcome place to enter from the scorching street. Great halves of beef hung on the walls, and fat, jolly butchers cut the scarlet meat and wrapped it in brown paper taken from a big roll that was kept on the counter. Attached to the ceiling was a large ball of string with the loose end hanging down so that the butcher could grasp it and use it in wrapping the packages of meat. Through the windows of the showcase, I could see heaps of juicy, soft hamburger; strings of pink hot dogs; piles of lean steaks and chops; and smooth, red liver laying beside big hunks of rich, yellow cheese.
At the very end of Sixth Street was a little store which sold such articles as tobacco, cigarettes, gum and candy. Mother would always take us to the store and let us choose a piece of penny candy. There was never any hesitation – Shirley and I always chose “candy fudges”. Sometimes, we purchased dark, rich chocolate ones, but more often we chose the creamy, smooth vanilla squares of fudge.
On our way home from the market we passed an ancient Jewish synagogue. It was a gloomy-looking building, its dark, yellow walls covered with vines. Surrounding the temple was a short, wide wall, and my sister and I delighted in walking on top of it. We thought that we were performing quite a daring feat, although the wall was only two feet tall. At the end of the wall, we scrambled down with mixed feelings of satisfaction and regret that the fun was over, and headed for home.”