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Baltimore, merchants seek relief for a beleaguered Lexington Market

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The pill peddlers were busy on Eutaw Street. Up and down the sidewalk they shuffled, hawking a variety of goods — methadone, the anxiety drug Xanax and other prescription medications — in a street code repeated over and over.

"Bukes and bars, bukes and bars," one man said rhythmically, slang for the buprenorphine strips used to treat heroin addiction and bar-shaped Xanax tablets.

Steps away, a huge sign heralded the entrance to another busy world of buying and selling: "World Famous Lexington Market," a fixture on downtown Baltimore's west side since 1782.

As a treatment outreach worker, Edward Canty has had a daily view of this illegal sidewalk commerce — a gauntlet through which shoppers must pass while dodging those already in a hazy high. He pities the older women heading into the market for meat and produce, as his grandmother once did, and the lunch crowds streaming in for a hot dog, crab cake or Chinese food from one of more than 100 stalls.

"You've got to skim through all of this madness," he said, surveying the scene through dark sunglasses on a recent Friday afternoon.

City Hall is laying the groundwork for a major overhaul of the city-owned market that could cost up to $25 million. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and market managers believe a redesigned building and better vendor mix — less fast food and more fresh, gourmet and ethnic fare — could lure back those middle-income shoppers who abandoned it long ago.

But officials acknowledge that managing what happens outside is vital to achieving success inside.

Police say a beefed-up presence that began two years ago has made a dent in problems such as prescription drug dealing, a view reflected in arrest statistics. Significant problems remain, though, with a recent police report describing Lexington Market as "a well known open-air drug market." Since summer, market management has barred more than 50 people for drug-related offenses.

Drawing more-affluent customers is one way to drive off such "negative behavior," said Ted Spitzer, whose consulting company Market Ventures Inc., which specializes in public markets, was hired last year for $436,000 to develop a master plan. That won't happen "unless the fundamental product offering and physical space is improved," he said.

"The market is long overdue for that kind of major improvement," said Spitzer, president of the Portland, Maine-based firm.

Some merchants express deep concern. Konstant's Foods owner Larry Brenner, whose four stalls sell candies, barbecue, fresh-roasted peanuts and $1.95 hot dogs, agrees that change is badly needed. His sales are down more than 20 percent from two years ago, he says, adding that he believes some people are "scared to come here."

But Brenner worries that overhauling the market could seriously disrupt business for an extended time and argues for more modest improvements. With the master plan not due for several months, he notes that a remade market is probably a couple of years away.

"In the meantime," he said, "we're all dying here."

Hopes for revival

For a long time, Lexington Market hummed. During much of the 20th century, it sat in the heart of the city's bustling shopping district, a block west of the junction of Howard and Lexington streets, home to four major department stores.

With the rise of the suburbs and the emergence of modern supermarkets after World War II, the Howard Street shopping district had declined markedly by the late 1970s, and it wasn't long before many regular customers stopped going to Lexington Market.

"A lot of people who used to come all the time, [now] we see them only at holidays," said Mike Houvardas, longtime owner with his wife, Fotini, of the Bergers bakery stall, which sells the familiar chocolate-covered cookies and where doughnuts are two for $1.

By 2004, the last time the market's management conducted a demographic survey, a "significant" share of customers reported household incomes below $25,000, said Casper Genco, who plans to retire this summer after 12 years as executive director.

For more than a decade, city officials have pinned hopes for reviving the market partly on breathing new life into nearby vacant buildings, such as the former Hecht Co. department store, now the Atrium apartments. Officials expected those new residents to reinvigorate the market, a trend bolstered by the steady growth of the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore's medical and academic campus.

It hasn't gone according to plan. Key parts of the west-side redevelopment project have stalled, notably the "Superblock," a $152 million proposal for 300 apartments, retail space and a parking garage that has been mired in litigation. And many hoped-for shoppers have avoided the market, whether because of discomfort with the setting, dissatisfaction with the offerings or both.

The sluggish economy has made matters worse. The market estimates that the number of annual visitors has dropped from 2.8 million to about 2.2 million since 2007, just before the nation plunged into a deep recession.

Recent changes have provided cause for optimism. The Everyman Theatre has moved into a new home on West Fayette Street, around the corner from the Hippodrome Theatre. In February, the city announced that it would seek ideas for redevelopment of several vacant city-owned sites near the market. And a developer plans to convert two small buildings next to the market parking lot to retail and residential uses.

Since 2011, Rawlings-Blake and Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, have co-chaired the UniverCity Partnership initiative, which aims to revive the west-side area as a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood. Lexington Market, which last received a face lift about a decade ago, is a priority.

"You have to have a place that is inviting, a place that looks clean and a place where people feel safe," said Kaliope Parthemos, the mayor's deputy chief for economic development. "That really is the mayor's focus. She knows how important the market is to Baltimore City, and she knows we can do better."

On any given day, the university and the hospital bring some 25,000 people to the west side, counting students, staff, faculty, patients and other visitors, Perman says. Too few of them venture to the market, and his institution is trying to change that.

To ease safety concerns, the university has extended its police department's range eastward and dedicated two officers to the market's Paca Street side. A law school program that offers low-cost legal advice, sometimes at the market itself, helps job-seekers expunge criminal records.

"We're partnered up and trying to make a better environment that ultimately will get more of our university family over to the market," Perman said, adding that it must cater to everyone. "We will fail if we yuppify the market."

That is a distant concern. A more immediate problem, he said, is that some on campus steer clear of the market over concerns about prescription drug dealing — still prevalent despite efforts by police and market security to clamp down.

"The market has historically been a place for regional illegal prescription drug sales and distribution," said Kirby Fowler, president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. He said one of the market's assets — its proximity to the subway, light rail and crosstown bus lines — also makes access easy for those involved in the illicit drug trade.

"Lexington Market is unfortunately known in the street as a place to get pills," said Dr. Michael Fingerhood, chief of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center's chemical dependence division. "It's really sad."

Buprenorphine is typically bought on the street by heroin or Oxycontin addicts who are in withdrawal and want a "bridge to treatment," he said. Xanax and similar pills are sought by those on methadone for the high.

There are a handful of methadone clinics within about a half-mile of the market. At one, the Center for Addiction Medicine, patients are strongly discouraged from going near the market, said clinical director Myron Johnson. The clinic may delay privileges, such as take-home bottles, if patients do not heed the warning.

"Of course," he said, "it's a public facility that we can't tell them they can't go to."

Outreach efforts

Canty, the outreach worker, was at his usual spot on Eutaw Street when a young man in light-brown pants sauntered by selling "bukes and bars."

For heroin addicts in daily methadone maintenance therapy, Canty said, ingesting Xanax can create a potent high that will "make you kiss this ground."

As the seller threaded his way up the sidewalk, Canty shouted after him: "That's your warning!"

He wanted dealers to know that they were being watched and that next time the police might arrest them, he said. His main mission has been to encourage drug users he encounters to seek treatment, as he did 18 years ago for crack cocaine addiction.

Until recently he was assigned to the market area by the Recovery Network, a treatment center that receives funding for the initiative from the quasi-public Behavioral Health System Baltimore. The system says that, on average, the effort has led to conversations with about 120 people a month at the market. About 25 were referred to treatment, and five made it to at least one appointment.

"You see progress," said Canty, 45, who was given a new assignment in January. "You see the same faces. After a while they come up to you and ask about treatment."

Later that day, Canty spotted a man staggering around zombie-like, eyes slowly closing and opening. He came to rest against Konstant's outdoor peanut counter, next to the market entrance.

Gerald Butler, one of about two dozen unarmed market police officers, approached. "You need to keep it moving, sir," he said.

"I'm not trying to do anything, to be smart," murmured the man.

Canty walked up and asked if he needed recovery treatment.

"I'm already on the program," the man replied. He told Canty that he's on methadone and had also taken other medication that day. Canty warned that he could be banned from the market for his behavior. "They see you nodding, they're going to bar you."

"I will keep it under control," the man promised. "I will leave. Thank you very much."

Canty handed him a referral card just as the man's eyes fluttered shut. A moment later he was headed north on Eutaw, swaying as if buffeted by a strong wind.

The market scene

Such problems are reflected in the market's "banning log," which lists individuals who are barred from the market, along with the reason and the incident date.

As of last month, the list had 106 entries dating to last summer, according to a copy obtained by The Baltimore Sun through Maryland's Public Information Act. More than half were drug-related. A few were for heroin or cocaine, but many simply listed "pills" as the offense, while noting whether the person was buying or selling.

According to the log, 25 people were enrolled at the time in drug-treatment programs at clinics in various parts of the city and as far away as Woodlawn. (The Center for Addiction Medicine did not appear on the list.)

Generally the bans are for life, said Genco, executive director of Lexington Market Inc., the quasi-public corporation that operates the market. "A very, very, very small percentage of people can make the experience of Lexington Market not pleasant," he said, and those "are people we don't want coming back to the market."

Methadone clinics, he said, "exacerbate the problem."

Sometimes drug deals occur inside the market, police say.

On Jan. 31, for example, a city police officer was walking through the market when he saw a man "back up to a food counter, place his hand behind his back, and place an object consistent with the size of street level" drugs into another man's hands, according to police records.

Police arrested both men. One was charged with possessing and distributing marijuana, the other with possession.

Arrests have dropped over the past two years at or next to the market — along the 200 block of N. Eutaw and Paca streets, and at 400 W. Lexington, the market's address. In 2012, police made 326 arrests, at least 263 of which were drug-related, according to OpenBaltimore, the city's online data portal. Last year, the arrest total fell to 240, with at least 170 related to drugs.

"I think we've gotten much better," said Capt. Mark Howe of the Central District. "We have made a lot of arrests, and word does get out that we are arresting people and are not tolerating it."

Howe traces the improvements to May 2012 when several new police academy graduates were assigned to patrol around the market. More officers were added two months later. They made drug arrests and enforced loitering laws, Howe said.

Brenner, the owner of Konstant's, a market mainstay since 1896, said police "cleaned up a lot." In an odd twist, though, his sales fell sharply: "A lot of those drug dealers and their customers were our customers, and they're gone."

Parthemos, the mayoral aide, said the city is careful not to violate civil liberties in the enforcement campaign. "[People] should be able to stand outside and wait for a bus or talk to people until they have to run to the Metro. Just because you see a large gathering of people does not mean there is illegal activity."

At the same time, she said, the public needs to feel comfortable visiting the market. At a meeting of the UniverCity Partnership in September, she asked police to find a way to make the market more inviting for customers.

Eutaw Street parking next to the market was eliminated because parked cars made it hard for police to spot drug deals, Howe said. Police have been enforcing jaywalking laws, which he said was for the safety of pedestrians who stride into traffic while crossing Eutaw.

The Downtown Partnership's Fowler credited police and the Rawlings-Blake administration with improvements but said "there needs to be sustained attention by police and social services for probably the next decade to address all the issues around there."

"We don't see much violent crime around Lexington Market," he said, "but the environment that's conducive to the sale of prescription drugs is not conducive to drawing tourists to the market on a daily basis."

Despite signs of interest among private investors, Fowler said the market's problems have probably also discouraged some developers from pursuing deals in the area: "Curb appeal is really important when you're showing off an area."

Architect Klaus Philipsen often walks to the market from his office a few blocks north on Eutaw Street. He said the food selection is lackluster and the atmosphere "somewhat grimy."

But he thinks focusing too much on the scene around the market is "misguided." He said it makes him feel uncomfortable, and no safer, to see police handcuffing someone sprawled on the sidewalk.

If the market can attract a broader range of customers, he said, "that will thin out the impression one currently has that mostly they're very poor people."

Philipsen says there's also a racial dimension that "nobody wants to talk about." Most market patrons are black, including those living in parts of West Baltimore without a supermarket nearby. Ideally, he said, the market would appeal across socioeconomic, racial and geographic lines.

"If you're white and want to see more white people, we can get them there by making this more attractive," Philipsen said. "It's not about subtracting people or making poor African-American folks not go there, but bringing some additional people so everybody feels comfortable."

The visitor's perspective

From his perch as director, Genco acknowledges that Lexington Market has "issues," including drug-dealing that has triggered arrests, but says it deserves a better reputation.

"Perception is a bigger challenge than the reality facing Lexington Market," said Genco, whose salary was $167,000 as of summer 2012, according to the market corporation's most recent public tax filing. "I would tell you today that Lexington Market is a cleaner, safer place to visit than it's been for many years."

The market is running an online survey that acknowledges its public relations challenge. One question begins: "Assuming that Lexington Market can be transformed into a clean, safe, and vibrant public market with a diverse product offering ..."

The market's image took a hit in 2009 when the owner of the Utz Potato Chip stall was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to selling illegal guns from his stand.

Despite the market's struggles, which Genco largely blames on problems in the broader economy, the corporation has stayed in the black.

The market operation itself loses money, but that loss is more than offset by revenue from a parking garage and surface lot. And over the past dozen years the market has spent $12 million on upgrades, according to Genco, including new roofing, air conditioning and facade improvements.

Nearly 14 percent of the stalls are vacant. That is partly by design, Genco said, because the market has opted against leasing to vendors who would duplicate what existing stalls sell. He would gladly rent to the kind of vendor he's long sought, such as a French bakery or gourmet cheese shop.

Meanwhile, the market has looked for ways to attract visitors. On Fridays, a large crowd fills the arcade for live music, often jazz or rhythm and blues.

The music — nothing else — is what pulls in Ron Mizell, a retired corrections officer who lives in Anne Arundel County. To him, the market is overrun with drug users. He sees no point in a costly renovation, saying, "It'll be cleaner for the dope fiends."

Mizell said there is far too much panhandling and pill-selling in the area. "You can get anything here," he said, looking down at the band from a second-floor railing. The solution, he says, is to step up arrests and evictions: "Real security could clean this up."

Another visitor, Michael Stanford, had a wholly positive perspective. He and his 9-year-old nephew were having lunch after deciding to ride the No. 23 bus in from West Baltimore.

"I like it down here, nice and pleasant," said Stanford, 55, between bites of orange chicken. "You ain't got to worry about no trouble."

As for the panhandling and drug dealing, Stanford said, "I don't focus on it."

A few tables away, eight men were finishing up a lunch of crab cakes, spaghetti and meatballs, fried chicken, wrap sandwiches and salad. Five were in town on business and had walked over with three colleagues from the Charles Street offices of Hibernia Networks, a telecom firm. The visitors were struck by what they saw.

"I think it illustrates how poverty here is quite a bit more extreme" than in Britain, said Dan Pope, 38, who lives in London.

Fellow Briton Manjit Sidhu, 42, nodded in agreement. "Worn faces, blank stares, that sort of thing," he said.

One of their American hosts, Sean Beier, said he likes taking visitors to the market and sees no need for big changes.

"It's interesting and not normal, and weird and funky," said Beier, 35. "That's what Baltimore is kind of known for."

scalvert@baltsun.com

By the numbers

* 2.2 million – estimated annual market visitors, down from 2.8 million in 2007.

* 106 – number of people who are banned from the market.

* 240 -- arrests at or next to the market in 2013. down from 326 in previous year.

* 170 – number of arrests that were drug-related. down from 263 in previous year.

Sources: City of Baltimore, Lexington Market Inc.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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