Mount Vernon's bustle brings together old and new Baltimore

Once a warehouse, millennials play ping pong and order Beijing-style gourmet Chinese dumplings at Mount Vernon

When Kyle Lam at the Charles Street Barber Lounge mentioned the other day that a new market was opening in Mount Vernon, I listened up.

I trust what I hear when I'm getting my hair cut.

The venue is Mount Vernon Marketplace, located in a once-offbeat corner of Baltimore at 520 Park Ave.

I stopped by to see what has been quietly accomplished there. The place used to be a department store warehouse; now millennials play pingpong and order Beijing-style gourmet Chinese dumplings. Everyone is tapping away on laptops.

It's a place that certainly seems to "think local." I found glass gallon jugs of milk and butter tubs from Kilby Cream, a farm in Rising Sun, Cecil County. I was immediately reminded of the old days — think 1970 — when buttermilk, milk and dairy products arrived from Carroll County and were sold at the old Castle Farm stall at Lexington Market.

I also was reminded of the gourmet markets in Mount Vernon's past — Hopper McGaw, Jordon Stabler and Independent Beef. This new market arrives in the spirit of its predecessors but enjoys its own spin.

I could envision — or perhaps wish for — similar-style markets in other city neighborhoods.

There's a stylish coffee shop, Ceremony Coffee Roasters, a light-filled, spare and elegant caffeine laboratory of big windows overlooking the neighborhood's landmarks. On this brilliant October day, I spotted the tower at St. Alphonsus Church and the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. at Lexington and Liberty streets. (Stepping outdoors and glancing westward, I heard the battered but beautiful facade of the old Mayfair Theater calling, "Restore me — quickly, please.")

Mount Vernon Marketplace's solidly constructed warehouse was once used for storage for the old Hochschild Kohn department store. The flagship store was at Howard and Lexington streets but, in a curious twist, the furniture department was here, about six blocks away.

Last year, the old warehouse became an apartment building in a successful rebranding as 520 Park. But its first floor was left open for this retail presence.

The market faces the Maryland Historical Society's southern annex, a structure some will recognize in a former life as the Greyhound bus station. Across the street is the Humanities Council and offices of the Walters Art Museum.

Yet even with these familiar facades, this is not the Mount Vernon of 25 years ago.

"I've seen a really big turnaround here," said Tim "Chyno" Chin, assistant manager of Pinch, the dumpling business. "The millennials are starting to take over. This area has needed a knock and a wake up. There is so much disposable income here."

Chin, who lives on Read Street, described the Mount Vernon he's observed in the past few years: "I see the little corner areas changing. Places near Mercy [Medical Center] and on Biddle Street around the Penn Station area.

"There are small businesses popping up everywhere. There's a good spirit here. People are engaging with their community leaders and politicians to create a flourishing neighborhood full of local businesses."

Chin told me he served 100 lunches one day this week, and his biggest surge happens in the evening, when patrons stop by for dinner or takeout.

"The reception has been excellent," said Patrick Exon, an owner of Pinch. "The Baltimore food scene is on the right path."

Chin said this week alone, the neighborhood saw the opening of two new spots — Flavor, a Centre Street restaurant, and Brew House No. 16, a brewery in the former firehouse at Calvert and Read.

I accepted his advice and visited both new businesses.

The retail and restaurant uptick has plenty to do with a major investment in apartments. Developers large and small have reclaimed Mount Vernon's stately but often beat-up residences and odd structures, such as this department store warehouse.

Look for new apartment construction to happen adjacent to it. A parking lot that has been vacant for 25 years along West Franklin Street, at Howard, is slated to become a new mini-village.

jkelly@baltsun.com

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