BOSTON (AP) – For decades, stands piled high with fruit and vegetables have packed Blackstone Street in Boston’s downtown on weekend market days, as vendors and customers haggled noisily in a grubby, bustling open-air produce market.

Now, Haymarket’s haggling has extended to negotiations between the vendors, the city and the state, as officials ponder a makeover of the area that has hosted the market since colonial days.

City and state officials are planning for change in areas that once stood in the shadows of an elevated highway that slashed through areas near Boston Harbor. Thanks to the city’s mammoth Big Dig project, Interstate 93 has now been placed underground and the highway has been dismantled.

Officials see an opportunity to make improvements and Haymarket vendors, whose longtime Blackstone Street location was squeezed in next to an exit ramp from the elevated highway, want their voices heard.

“Quite honestly, the vendors want to be left alone,” said Ottavio Gallotta, president of the Haymarket Pushcart Association, taking time out from running his own produce stand on Saturday and surveying the crowds on Blackstone Street.

But the vendors have also talked to the city about moving to a parcel of land adjacent to their current location, Gallotta said.

“I’m very optimistic, are you kidding me?” said Gallotta. “I think it’s going to work out. The city will benefit. The peddlers will benefit. Everyone will. … We’re very thankful for everything the city and the state are doing for us.”

“Negotiations have been positive,” said Lou Bottari, 35, vice president of the pushcart association.

A spokeswoman for the city said Haymarket was “a Boston tradition, to be sure. It’s an institution.”

“We are working strongly toward keeping the vendors in the same general area of Blackstone and Hanover (a nearby cross street that the market spills onto), but some adjustments need to be made because of the new layout. What those are remain to be seen,” said city spokeswoman Meredith Bowman.

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello said, “The Haymarket is one of the oldest outdoor public markets in the country. … We’re mindful of their concerns, we know the history and the roots they have in that neighborhood, the services they provide to residents of Boston.”

Amorello said the city would be seeking bids for development of the parcel adjacent to the Blackstone Street location and, in that bid package, officials would look for accommodations for the vendors on the sidewalks below.

Gallotta said the vendors were open to the idea of moving to the new parcel, which is essentially right across Blackstone Street, but “we’ve got to make sure it’s right for us.”

About 200 vendors are licensed to sell at Haymarket, which runs along 410 feet of sidewalk along Blackstone, Hanover and North Streets, said Gallotta.

Boston officials agreed to establish a central market in 1734 and that market had several incarnations in the Haymarket area before Blackstone Street finally became the market area in the 1850s, according to the 1970 book, “Haymarket,” by Wendy Snyder.

Located next to the city’s North End neighborhood, the city’s Italian-American enclave, many of the vendors are Italian, but newer faces have also arrived, including some Hispanics and Asians.

The people pinching the produce are also a diverse group. A woman wearing a Muslim headscarf passed by Saturday, followed by an Indian woman in a sari, Asians, blacks, Hispanics and even a few tourists.

“We totally enjoy it,” said Zhen Huang, 25, of the city’s South Boston section. “There’s a certain culture to it. It’s European market-style.”

Vendors are sometimes gruff and irascible, apparently unbound by any newfangled notions of customer service, but that is something Gallotto says the association is working on.

Paul Piazza, 78, whose family has been selling produce there for 90 years, said, “We get aggravated. Sometimes they get you at the wrong time and you just blow your top.”

Joseph Onessimo, 63, of Rowley, who has been selling produce at the market for more than 50 years, remembered the days when he brought his stock in by horse-drawn wagon.

“Years ago there were a lot of big families. People came here to shop, to save money, to buy quantity for their big families. … We still have a lot of poor people that come here. They depend on us – like we depend on them.”

“I don’t think it should be moved,” he said. “I think it should be here forever.”

AP-ES-09-25-04 1549EDT

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