When I first visited Dimitrovgrad in 2005, the impression of a large town marketplace spreading out to all parts of the town seemed to hang all over the place. The interurban bus pulled up on the street leading to the marketplace, and the procession of cars heading that way did not end until the small hours of the day. The vendors opened their stands at two o’clock in the morning, and the dark alleys hustled and bustled with people. As if the marketplace, once forced out of the town, along the railway tracks, had slowly but steadily spread beyond the farm land where it stood; it had taken over the old sports hall and was making its way into the residential blocks of flats. As if the impression of invasion was dictated by the sentiments shared by the vendors themselves – the marketplace was shameful and dirty, even if indispensable and real. Dimitrovgrad, the town of the youth, “the beating heart of the industry”, had become the town with the largest open-air marketplace in 1990. The impression changed when I revisited the marketplace in 2008 – getting off the train, I found a seemingly more tamed and hidden marketplace with changed working hours. There is a deeper change in the structure of capital behind this change on the surface, which I will try to analyze here.

In the 1980s the traditional fruits and vegetables market in Dimitrovgrad grew into one of the largest open-air markets1 for industrial goods in Bulgaria, and a major regional one. The rapid growth of such markets is a phenomenon characteristic for the countries of the former COMECON (Wallace & Sik 1996). Established in the socialist period, these marketplaces compensated for the deficits by substituting the poorly performing retail sector, and became the main source of supplies for the impoverished social groups after 1989. This rapid growth also predetermined their “wildness” (Ditchev 2005) as market forms – they quickly appropriated the vacant urban spaces and transformed the infrastructure built under socialism. A number of interrelated structural changes made possible their coming into existence and flourishing: the dissolution of the hegemonic retail sector – the moment when retail was liberalized; the sudden demise of COMECON; the opening of borders; the changed role of the state; the rise of consumer culture and the substantial decline in the quality of life. The market thus took advantage of the loosening of the regime of cross-border travel and filled in “a relative vacuum of mechanisms for exchange and distribution” (Burawoy & Verdery 1999: 3). This vacuum was quickly filled in by what Konstantinov (1996) refers to as “trader-tourists”, or what we call “suitcase traders” in everyday speech – individual traders operating alone or are organized in small family-run networks, who develop new channels for supply and re-distribution of consumer goods.

In the case of the marketplace in Dimitrovgrad in particular, several factors played a significant role in its institutionalization, precisely its proximity to sites of importance for its operation: the “Vietnamese dormitories”, the railway line connecting Bulgaria and Turkey, along which goods were smuggled as per many oral sources, and the town’s bus station. The expansion of the marketplace in Dimitrovgrad was carried out in several stages marked by the legalization of market activities on already occupied municipal land. Pamporov (2003) notes that this trend was reversed in 1997 as a consequence of the restitution of farmland – some of the owners of the restituted land joined forces and undertook a new expansion of the market. On the one hand, this process reminds of Braudel’s account of the way town markets emerged and were institutionalized, at first occupying the vacant lots in the town and gradually being taken over and brought under the control of the town authorities. On the other hand, the relationship between public and private interests was redefined, resulting in a form of partnership in which internal boundaries and distinctions are extremely blurred. At the same time, all accounts of this development carry the notion of a right to the city, i.e. the respondents don’t see the marketplace as an appropriation, rather as exercising what one is rightfully entitled to.

What I am going to analyze here is the observed change in the organization of the marketplace, which is best seen in its diminishing visibility. It is through the transformation of the spatial practices and the organization of the marketplace that the different battles for control over the new economic fields are revealed. The analysis of the power structures of the marketplace and its evolution illustrates a process of re-territorialization, a battle for new economic and/or social fields. Here is why the distinct way in which the town marketplace came into being and evolved both as a place and as an institution could be interpreted as a reflection and as an integral part of the reorganization of social hierarchies in society and in capitalist relations.

I will start with the more general observation on the continuous trend of the marketplace’s consolidation and “hiding” from public view at the same time. What I mean by “hiding” is a number of different, sometimes related processes, observed in the marketplaces under study. It could be the physical placing of the market out of sight, or, as it was the case with the flea-market along Perlovska river in Sofia – below the line of sight. It could also be the relocation of the marketplace to the town’s periphery (again, the case with the flea-market in Sofia), or its disguising by installing shop-like pavilions, as was the case in Dimitrovgrad. In this way, the urban space occupied by the market is “cleared” by setting distinct boundaries between the two spatial phenomena. The act of setting boundaries is particularly important on a conceptual level, as the main justification for this act runs along the lines of the market being considered “shameful” and “dirty”. The actual change in the relations between the town and the market observed in the market’s limited visibility is deeply related to a change in capitalism/capital. What I call “hiding” in Dimitrovgrad was carried out in two ways: on the one hand, the vendors displaying their merchandise on the ground were removed, i.e. all the “peddlers”, including, however, some small manufacturers, mainly elderly women selling hand-knitted products; on the other hand, by enclosing the marketplace with covered pavilions. The peddlers who were the weaker “players” were forced to move to the inside/the periphery of the market, indicating the market’s “growing big” – the more “serious” vendors were moved to the front. We could also perceive this as a clear indication of the desire to change the attitude towards the market, apart from making it legal.

The change discussed here took place between 2005 and 2008 when two big chain stores opened branches in Dimitrovgrad – “Billa” and “Technomarket”; furthermore, the construction/reconstruction of the railway line Plovdiv-Svilengrad started off, and an NGO launched an initiative to designate the town’s Stalinist buildings as architectural monuments. Yet another thing happened in this period, which is oftentimes ideologically framed as a form of rationalization, and that is Bulgaria’s entering the EU. This fact started to operate as a justification for any major change introduced to the marketplace. The change in the organization of the marketplace further corresponded with the election of a new (“rightist”) town mayor.

These interrelated processes point to the transformation of in-town capital and hint at a possible gentrification process under way. In the same period the management of the marketplace changed too, which is rendered most visible by the marketplace map used for renting out stands. In 2007-2008 the marketplace was surveyed geodetically and a new digital, accurately charted map replaced the mental map used when signing contracts by that time. This in itself indicates the transformation of capital which shapes spatial relations and closely follows the pattern of space abstraction described by Henri Lefebvre (1974) – a process needed by capitalism to turn urban space into an exchangeable commodity.


The map used until recently by the marketplace administration in managing and renting out market stands. Its mental character is particularly striking for as it is seen on the geodetic survey, the marketplace has an entirely different shape. On the other hand, the map clearly shows the sectors that are of no interest: the fruits and vegetables market and the private stands are not even numbered.


The new map of the marketplace from 2009. Abstraction, as Lefebvre claims, is possible thanks to geometry by means of which space is represented on maps and plotted out.

In 2005 one would observe a very interesting turnabout (détournement) of the “socialist” urban space at the marketplace which had spread significantly in spatial terms and had become an important economic institution in the town by then. At the time my first field trips were conducted, the marketplace occupied and détourned the area in front of the town’s sports hall, a quasi-commercial site already; furthermore, a private firm had acquired the town’s bus station, appropriating its premises as well. At the same time, market stands offering mainly old books and second-hand goods were placed on the sidewalks next to the marketplace according to a pre-set scheme. The working hours of the marketplace were rather peculiar at that time: wholesale deals were made between 4 and 6 o’clock on Friday morning. This was explained to me in several ways which brought out the wildness and uncontrollability of the market principle and the inhumanity of the business interests, by pointing out the competition among the vendors and the inclination of the management to collect higher fees, the longer the rent period was.


This is the town’s sports hall with peddlers occupying the area in front of it.


The stands on Stephan Stambolov Street which would undergo a rather interesting transformation soon after (2005).

In 2008, after I was away from the “field” for a somewhat extended period of time, it seemed that the marketplace had become less visible to the town, even producing the illusion that it had shrunk. In fact, the entire area in front of the sports hall was “cleared” from vendors and the only commercial activity was limited to boutique shops. This impression, however, was rather deceptive for the number of vendors actually had not decreased; only some of them had changed location. All the peddlers were moved to the back of the marketplace where the farmland plots were located.2 The old metal market stands were rearranged into covered pavilions; those on the inner side of the sidewalk (neighboring the marketplace) were more up-scale, more spacious and more similar to shops in appearance, whereas the second-hand vendors were moved to the former marketplace for used cars. In this way the section of the marketplace “invading” the town was flanked only by covered pavilions. The outcome was very spectacular indeed: Stephan Stambolov Street was completely remodeled into something like a shopping arcade, lined up by small shops, adjoining each other, with closed metal shutters on weekdays. Besides, there was a change in the attitude and sentiments of the respondents. From the shared feeling of shame and despair in 2005, a normalization of the experience was observed in 2008-2009, along with its changed spatial expression.


The area in front of the sports hall in 2008. The new pavilions, part of the strategy of the old management of the marketplace to alter its appearance, are seen on the left. The banner on the top of the building advertises the factory of the father of the current town mayor.


The covered pavilions on Stephan Stambolov Street.


The pavilions along Stephan Stambolov Street, seen from the outside.

The main visual effect of this development was taking the marketplace out of sight as the newly built pavilions were arranged in a solid line. The very act of moving from an open-air stand to a pavilion is thought to be prestigious. On the one hand, it speaks of the status of the vendors and facilitates their business; on the other, it is used as an argument against the attempts to relocate certain sections of the marketplace. The spatial practices furthermore appropriate the site by setting up a stand which is later upgraded to a shop. This undertaking is talk about in several ways by the respondents. On the one hand, it is justified with the investment made in constructing the pavilion. Another justification oftentimes brought forward is one’s right to the marketplace, which might come either from the fact that the owner is local or from the efforts made to establish and run one’s business.


The sign “For Sale” was put up on many pavilions in 2009. Apart from making apparent the discrepancy between the development forecasts made by some vendors and the policies of the old management of the marketplace, the sign itself is interesting for it articulates the attitude towards the site. It could possibly refer only to the structure but according to some respondents it refers to the marketplace site although such an act has no juridical power as such. The different numbers seen on the pavilion correspond to the different stages in the development of the marketplace.


As I am about to understand later, the pavilions on the outside were to be demolished (by force) in the summer of 2009.

The former management of the marketplace (to be precise, single representatives of the management, taking personal decisions) started carrying out a policy of reorganization of the marketplace, aimed at supporting manufacturers who were given centrally-located sites under preferential and tacit terms. This was justified with the importance of the marketplace to the local economy in terms of creating jobs. Let’s not forget, however, that this was an attempt to reverse and change the original specialization of the market as a place for trading with imported (smuggled) goods. The “policy” of supporting local manufacturers led to a transformation of the marketplace, some of its sections gradually turning into a showcase – something that Fernand Braudel calls a “private market” – a marketplace where deals are made behind the scenes. Moreover, influenced by the construction of more prominent pavilions, some of the weaker vendors also tried to follow this example.

The transformation of the marketplace into a covered market was carried out in several stages that had to do with growing a feeling of ownership and right to the stand: fitting it with a security system, an electric meter, a lock-up system, laying foundations, etc. – transforming the stand into a private space. Little by little, after a wave of pavilion building, a number of inconsistencies came up between the spatial practices and the municipal regulations, among which – access to public goods (water supply, power supply, etc.), allegedly obstructed by the marketplace because the stands were placed on their routes as the official version went. In order to justify its actions, the municipality pursued ideological confrontation of the interests of the vendors and the public interest, although the marketplace structures conformed to the regulations. This example shows how slippery the regulations still are, and how relations and meanings are being currently renegotiated. The process is even more complicated – on the one hand, part of the initiative came from stronger vendors who protected their positions and their merchandise in this way, for it was far more profitable for them to invest in something that would save time off loading and unloading goods; on the other hand, weaker vendors claimed they had been obligated.


A marketplace stand wired for electricity. When no electric meter is installed, vendors are charged a daily fee.

The question remains: could the marketplace be interpreted as the central institution of the economic transformation? The analyzed here relationship between urban space and the more or less spontaneous market practices throughout the 1990s does not go one way. The initial wild appropriation of the vacant (and suitable) lots in the town points to the economic restructuring and the suspension of the old regulations and relations, and further illustrates the spatial effects of the advancing new (wild) capitalism. In this moment, however, the marketplace appeared to be the main survival strategy for the town and its inhabitants. The economic change and the consolidation of some of the “actors” ran parallel to the attempts to draw clear spatial boundaries between the two seemingly irreconcilable areas: the marketplace and the town. These spatial boundaries pertained to both their physical and “aesthetic” differentiation. Thus the marketplace transformed urban space by appropriating it at first, and then with land property relations becoming more complicated, actors and their roles changing, and the market’s own development, urban space itself started to have an impact on the specific local practices. The central idea structuring the relationship between the two phenomena was the perception of the marketplace which shaped the individual experiences of the economic change and its effects on the personal life stories, and took shape in the way the spatial practices of the marketplace were conceptualized and constructed.

The slow process of settling down and spatial reorganization of the marketplace points to the ongoing deeper transformation of the economic culture, and capitalism in general. The specific way of physically constructing and taking possession of the site and the location of the market stand is part of the process of appropriating space and constructing a new urban place. At the same time, because of the variations in the status of the economic actors, this process is deeply related to the changing spatial relations, redefining the categories of public and private, and transforming the way of managing space. To a large extent, the visible side of the marketplace is formed as a constellation of stronger traders who start to use the marketplace as a place for displaying goods, whereas deals are made outside the public space of the marketplace. Thus the process of “hiding” speaks of both change and consolidation of the economic actors. The process articulates the quasi-explicit desire to change the image of the market: from a black market to a manufacturers’ venue – an act which, if correlated to Weber’s analysis of the formation of capitalism, could be perceived as an attempt to rehabilitate space by obliterating/hiding the more deplorable trading practices for the sake of the more prestigious production sphere.


This study was carried out in May 2009 with the financial support of the Scientific Research Fund of the Ministry of Education and Science.

1. The English term open-air marketplace accounts for the market both as a place and as a form. In the literature this phenomenon most often refers to the expansion of markets for primarily smuggled goods, which proliferated in the countries of the former COMECON. In its cultural significance and institutional role this phenomenon relates to the institution of the marketplace studied by Geertz 1979, Alexander & Alexander 1991, and others.

2. I did not personally check the statute of the land which might have been interesting and has a bearing on the main argument. This piece of information was shared by all respondents who oftentimes also added that this was arable land. For the time being, the main interpretation I am inclined to take up is that this territory is perceived as unregulated, situated on the borderline with the wild and the natural.


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