I laughed at a news report quoting an official who lamented that Lexington Market lacked a French bakery. The Lexington Market I know is a place that has a thriving bakery, but it sells red velvet cake by the slice and at a price to fit its customers' pocketbooks.
As beat-up and poorly maintained as the market is, it possesses a thriving urban vitality. It's good to go there for a Baltimore reality check. The people-watching is incredible and a lot of money seems to change hands. Its tangle of overhanging neon and painted stall signs reminds me of the Baltimore when few tourists came here, and painted screens had yet to become folk art.
There's hardly a Baltimorean who doesn't have a favorite food memory of Lexington Market. As a child I was fascinated by the cups of 5-cent, all-you-can-drink buttermilk. The horseradish and coconut grinder was pretty special, too. I cannot recall a French baker, but there was a German import stall with wursts, lunchmeats and incredible sauerkraut.
The group that runs the market wants to transform it with a $20 million renovation that would bring in new businesses and customers.
The Lexington Market of today is not pretty. The sidewalks surrounding it are filthy. The glass on its entry doors is smeared and greasy. Accumulated cigarette butts line its thresholds. The place seems to lack management as the stall vendors hurriedly dish out hot lunches in plastic foam containers. The place is rough and tumble. There is far too much liquor sold, both in the market and near it.
Lexington Market has been a neglected, highly undisciplined stepchild of city government for too long now.
The market today may not be offering the Carroll County butter and ice cream I knew as a child, but its neighborhood isn't the one I knew in 1960. Merchants and other downtown residents point out that there is now a heavy concentration of drug rehabilitation centers near the market.
There is a visible private security and Baltimore City Police Department presence on both Eutaw and Paca streets at the popular weekday lunch hour. In my opinion, there also is a high degree of official tolerance for the rowdy behavior that seems to go hand-in-hand with the market's shabby upkeep, liquor sales and mounds of tossed tobacco butts.
Baltimore is a city that delivers wonderful contrasts. I really like the market at its gutsy best, like its shameless promotion of fried foods and sugary sodas. The food police could open a jail here. I might be in it.
But I'll be honest. I sometimes come to Lexington Market to atone for my foolish sins, like spending $3 a bunch for four organic turnips grown by food advocates at an urban farm near the Hanover Street Bridge. You go there for a delicious but greasy hot dog. And beef tongue sandwiches are still for sale.
I will not be crestfallen if the French bakery does not materialize. But the place does need an upgrade and some new thinking. It could use some direction, the imposition of standards, even if they are Baltimore's own very tolerant, lightly enforced standards, the kind we all know, perhaps grouse about, and secretly love.