Baltimore’s Lexington Market

Four African-American youth lean against a dirty ceramic wall. “Hey, Britney Spears! Keep walking, Britney,” they yell at my blonde girlfriend. I’m unwilling to make eye contact, fearing its encouraging influence. The boys’ heckling gives me that feeling of uncertainty, as if I’ve crossed an invisible barrier into the other Baltimore, the one where I am not accepted.
The boys are chilling at Lexington Market, one of Baltimore’s six operational food markets, vestiges of pre-supermarket shopping. Located on the corner of Lexington Avenue, between Greene and Paca streets, the market is an odd combination of independent stalls, most selling pre-cooked foods, with a few raw meat and fish dealers, fresh vegetables stands, and baked goods vendors thrown in. Nowadays, Lexington Market sells mostly prepared foods, like lunch sandwiches, fried chicken, and boardwalk fries. It once was the original super-market, with more than a hundred stalls selling fresh poultry, produce, seafood, and meat. Lexington Market has followed Baltimore’s residential and commercial shifts. As the middle-class fled the city and larger supermarkets entered urban neighborhoods, it evolved into a fast food, lunch time haven, mostly for local residents. The businessmen, doctors, and other professionals who inhabit nearby office buildings, medical centers, and universities trickle into Lexington Market, but lack the sheer numerical force of the locals.
My encounter reminds me of how I appear to the outside world. I’m a white, middle-class college student dressed in a Calvin Klein sweater and Perry Ellis pants. My eastern European Jewish heritage shows through in my stocky build and wavy, dirty blond hair. A short, overweight, curly-haired Jew and his short, slightly overweight, blonde girlfriend walking among the booths of Lexington Market, in search of lunch along with hundreds of others, are unusual enough sight to elicit a response in 2002. Three quarters of a century ago, no one would have given us a second thought.

It is the lunchtime rush, and as I walk, I weave in and out of haphazard lines, extending into the thin walkways between booths. The main floor – known as the east market – is a geometry teacher’s dream. Inside the large, square brick building are inscribed a number of small, rectangular stalls, spread out in a chessboard pattern. A few businessmen, talking on their cells phones, stand in front of distinctly local stores, waiting for to buy a polish sausage from Johnny Pollock’s Sausage Factory. Neighborhood locals, dressed much less formally then the businessman, form a line at Park’s Fried Chicken. Only a few of the nearly 130 stalls are chain stores – Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Utz Potato Chips among them; the remainder are products of local entrepreneurship, and many have been around for over a hundred years.
As I meander through the market, I imagine how the market appeared twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years ago. Many stores haven’t changed names, nor decorations – if the dirty walls, aging chairs, and decrepit signs are any indication. Market-goers still gather at Foell Bros. Meats, Mary Mervis Deli, and Huber’s Bakery, but neither the patrons nor the workers are the Russian, Italian, or Irish immigrants who once populated the market. Instead, an Asian family serves butchered meat at Foell’s, while African-American clerks serve the sausages at Johnny Pollock’s. During lunch, stands selling prepared foods have the longest lines, and crowds gather around the small, wooden ledges protruding from the walls.
In the arcade, a mall-style addition on the side of the market, shopping options extend beyond food. A gradient of shops, melding from food into commerce, marks the transition. The arcade, added in 1982, holds strip-mall type stores that otherwise would be excluded from the food market. Lisa’s Lexington Florist sells fresh cut flowers, while Natural Choice Vitamins offers “herbs, vitamins, [and] holistic and herbal consulting.” Around the corner, visitors get instant refunds at Action Tax Service. Carts by the front entrance off Eutaw Street sell knock-off perfume, cheap sunglasses, and CDs of questionable legality. An extended line of locals has formed in from of Ben Lex Tobacco’s lottery machine.
A young girl – two years old, at most – wanders across the arcade. She catches the eye of a police officer assigned to the area. “Where’s your mommy?” he asks.

The girl points toward the lottery line, and then begins wandering away again. He walks over and grabs her hand. Her father, waiting with his wife in to buy lottery tickets, finally notices her absence. A thirty-something African-American male, he is dressed in purple pants and a weathered sweatshirt, both of which appear to be second-hand. “How did you get away from me?” he asks his daughter. “She’s so damn sneaky,” he says to the officer, clearly embarrassed about losing track of his daughter.

Nowadays, the lunch rush comes mostly from the local residential neighborhood. A short walk from local housing projects, low-cost residences and drug rehabilitation programs, Lexington Market’s appeal is its inexpensive food and close location. Years ago, it served a different clientele – and a different type of food. Mrs. B. Baker is a twenty-year veteran of the Lexington Market security force. She watches the commotion every day from the second-floor balcony of the market. “When I first started working here, I used to come two hours early, because I was so excited about the people here. The management, the people – they just made you feel so good,” she recalls. “We had all this great food: Murray’s, famous for corned beef; Konstant’s Candies; Faidley’s for crab cakes. We used to pack them in at lunchtime.
“It’s changed a lot since then,” Baker says.

Lexington Market started as an open-air market, established on the heels of the American Revolution, through the generous 1782 donation of Baltimore-native General John Eager Howard, returning home from the war. In the revolutionary spirit, it was named for the Battle of Lexington, and presumably later gave its name to the street that now runs directly in front of it, Lexington Avenue. It was not until 1817 that Baltimore City’s borders grew to encompass the market and, by the mid 1850s, nearly 50,000 people traded goods on market days. The market continued to grow dramatically, drawing on whatever population it could best serve – travelers during the antebellum period, local residents during the civil war, and thousands of European immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th century. Though the Market continued to grow, by the 1950s and 60s, Baltimore was in the middle of “white flight,” which turned into the rapid suburbanization of the middle class.

With the middle class leaving the city, Lexington Market experienced a crisis of clientele. Their major customer base was eroding, as it was for much of the city. And, like the rest of the West Side of Baltimore, Lexington Market fell into decline. “Markets existed because there weren’t grocery stores,” explains Bill Devine, the fourth-generation owner of Faidley’s, a seafood store in the market. In downtown Baltimore, across from the city’s major department stores – Hoschild, Kohn and Hutzler Bros. – fresh food was bought from the markets. In 1895, herring for dinner came from fish dealer L. Nunner, while Henry Riefler & Son provided “Baltimore Dressed Beef.” By the 1950s, fresh fish, poultry, meat and produce could be purchased at suburban supermarkets.

“There used to be six meat butchers here. This place used to be full of produce stands; now its fast food. The whole thing depends on who occupies the neighborhood,” says Devine. With grocery stores emerging in the city and the vast majority of the market’s shoppers moving to the suburbs, markets as a whole seemed obsolete. “Most cities tore them down. The flight to suburbia changed the necessity for having a market,” he says. Baltimore, however, choose to keep Lexington Market, along with six others in the city. Now it’s fighting an uphill battle to keep it safe, clean, and usable.
A revitalization movement in the early 1980s culminated in the addition of $8.5 million retail & entertainment area – the arcade. City officials planned the addition to bring back customers, who had fled due to access problems because of subway construction nearby, as well as the closing of nearby branches of Baltimore’s main department stores. It worked, somewhat, until a new problem arose: drugs.

“There are all these drug programs over here,” explains Baker. “A lot of people, they go to the drug programs, and then their next stop is here – I don’t know if you saw them out front, but they just stand there. I think people are afraid to come here.”
As the neighborhood changed and white flight worsened, Lexington Market found its surroundings to be very different. Only a few blocks from the wealthy tourist haven of the Inner Harbor, the market’s surrounding neighborhood is nearly entirely African-American, and largely lower and lower-middle class. It is situated within walking distance of a number of public housing projects and, as Baker notes, is centrally located to a number of the city’s drug rehabilitation centers.
It’s also within walking distance of the University of Maryland Medical Center and many downtown businesses. But for the most part, businessmen shy away from Lexington Market. Devine traces the decline of the business lunch crowd to the arrival of the light rail line that bisects the market and the business district. The light rail line seems to have created an invisible barrier between the businesses and the deteriorating neighborhood, a line that many refuse to cross. “[Business] changed mainly when they renovated Howard Street and put that light rail in. It deterred people from coming up here,” he says. It also allowed easy access to the market for the drug dealers who now work in front of it.

The shift in clientele is easily perceived among the vendors. Above many of the stands are the markings of the changing customer population, with tributes to Maryland’s food assistance programs: “We Accept Independence Cards.” The older stands, not yet updated to electronic standards, proclaim: “We Accept Food Stamps.”

The changing demographics have left Lexington Market in a peculiar place in Baltimore. The quality of the food is still difficult to come by elsewhere in Baltimore. It lives up to the praise of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in 1859 noted the because of Lexington Market, “Baltimore is âÂ?¦ the Gastronomic Metropolis of the Union.” Faidley’s Seafood is home to Baltimore’s best crab cake, according to the gourmands at Baltimore Magazine (who, as the sign above its door notes, declared Faidley’s Baltimore Best Crab Cake in ’89, ’90, ’91, ’92, ’93, ’96, and ’99). Faidley’s, and the few other remaining vestiges of the older market, still attracts clients from all over the city, Caucasian and African-American alike. But even so, their numbers are small, and it is difficult to imagine the tourists of Baltimore’s inner harbor making their way over to Lexington Market.

Every time I come to Lexington Market, I feel out of place. Even after living in Baltimore for four years, I get an uncomfortable feeling whenever I’m an in a part of town that is nearly entirely African-American, especially in a location like the Market. Even during lunchtime, the market is nearly entirely black. The few white faces tend to be rare businessmen or workers, who nearly universally look like remnants of a time past, older men who have worked in the market for their entire lives and see no point to change. The African-Americans in the market are of all types. Many, especially during the lunch rush, are simply businessmen, well dressed, talking on cell phones, and searching for a bite to eat before the continuation of their days. Others, like those lining up by the lottery machine, seem to be less fortunate, poorly clothed and under-fed.
In the management office, they seemed to have much the same opinion, if unspoken, as we did. The receptionist, a young, heavyset, black women, showed us in. As we were waiting, she got call on her cell phone. “Mom’s wandering around down there alone,” she told her supervisor. “I’m going down to get her.”

Loiterers in and around the market reinforce shop-owner’s and patron’s fears. They huddle together out front, leaning on construction barriers, smoking cigarettes, and, covertly, selling drugs. “They’re making deals in front of you 24/7,” one shopkeeper recently told The Sun. Their concerns have been validated by violence. In 1997, a man killed his girlfriend, who was working inside the market, in a murder-suicide; a few months later, a police officer shot a fleeing suspect out front. Michael Jackson, an employee of Yogurt Treet, put it best in a 1994 interview with The Sun: “There’s too many people here with no money and nothing to do.”

Lexington Market is a very different world than the cultural mainstays of Baltimore, one not frequented by the middle-class suburbanite population that travels to the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry. And while whether or not that is a good thing is still up for debate, it may soon be changing. Baltimore is instituting a West Side redevelopment plan, to breathe back life into this part of town.

“They’re trying to do something about it,” says Baker. “There’s a police station across the street, and they come through and move those people [in front of the market] out.” As part of Mayor Martin O’Malley’s West Side Redevelopment plan, Lexington Market is getting a serious facelift – a new faÃ?§ade, new windows, lighting, signs, and more “bright user friendly seating area[s]”. The fears of the community have not gone unnoticed, however. “A renovated Lexington Market will meet the needs of new residents and visitors, and will continue to serve its existing clientele,” explains the Renovation plan. “Fresh colorful exterior renovation that presents a secure and Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½open’ feeling, couple within new, clean interior finishes, is required to boost the Market’s image and prepare it for its next two hundred years.”

Baker says, “I think people are [still] afraid to come here. But, things are going to be better in the next couple of years.”
And in the life of a 220-year old market, a couple of years is nothing.

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