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Reviving Lexington Market

MarketingLexington MarketStephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore's Lexington Market proudly calls itself the oldest continuously operating public market in the nation — and home to some of the best crab cakes in the world at its famed Faidley's Seafood cafe. Yet even a venerable landmark that's been in business since 1785 needs an occasional upgrade.

That's why the announcement last week of plans for a $20 million to $25 million renovation of the market is welcome news for everyone who values its historical significance. But simply making cosmetic changes to the building's interior won't be enough to attract new vendors and customers to the site. To succeed, efforts to revitalize the market must be part of a broader, long-term strategy for downtown redevelopment that aims to transform the area around it as well.

Many people still remember the market's heyday in the 1950s, when Baltimore's population was nearly 1 million and Lexington Market occupied prime real estate in the heart of a bustling downtown commercial district. In those days the west downtown neighborhood centered around Howard and Lexington streets was filled with department store shoppers, office workers and tradesmen of all types who made the market a popular meeting place, eatery and tourist destination for people from across the city and region.

The decline of downtown over subsequent decades, however, was mirrored in the fortunes of Lexington Market, which today serves a far narrower and less affluent clientele. It's still famous as a destination, but few out-of-town tourists venture far enough along the gritty streets surrounding it to actually pay a visit, and suburban residents have come to shun it out of frustration with the area's aggressive panhandlers and fear of crime. As a result, most of the people found in the market today are local residents from some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, and the food, merchandise and services offered by the vendors there reflect that demographic.

Baltimore officials want to bring in more upscale restaurants and shops similar to those in the publicly owned markets of cities like Philadelphia and Seattle. Those markets have become community hubs featuring specialty shops, eateries, artisans and regional food vendors that attract not only local residents but visitors from across the country and around the world.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake no doubt would love to see a similar attraction take root at Baltimore's Lexington Market. After years of neglect, the west side of downtown finally seems poised for a comeback with mixed-use redevelopment projects like the long-delayed Superblock and the opening of entertainment venues such as the renovated Hippodrome and new Everyman theaters. A more varied clientele at Lexington Market that included younger professionals attracted to city living could give a boost to the mayor's goal of growing the city's population by 10,000 new families over the next decade.

But for that to happen, the city needs to do more to make the area around the market feel safer and more welcoming to new visitors while retaining its current clientele's loyalty to the site. Over the last year, Baltimore police have gradually increased their presence on the streets around the market, and inside managers have beefed up security to respond to problems more quickly. Violent crime in the area has fallen significantly, and nuisance offenses such as aggressive panhandling and public intoxication are also on the wane.

Meanwhile, city and market officials are working with other property owners in the neighborhood to improve services such as street cleaning and trash pickup to make the area generally more inviting. Even small changes can make a difference, and officials must do everything possible ensure visitors' first impression of the market is a positive one.

Because of its location, Lexington Market may never be a candidate for the kind of wholesale gentrification that has transformed public markets in other cities, but there's little doubt that it has the potential to become an important anchor for development on the west side of downtown. Public markets everywhere are returning to the spotlight, and there's no reason Baltimore's best-known example of that historic institution can't also be made to shine again.

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