Arcades Project: On Lexington Market, again

Arcades Project: On Lexington Market, again
An artist's rendering of what the new Lexington Market might look like (Courtesy/Baltimore Public Markets Corporation)

I am inclined to thoughts of perdition. As a student of history, I know that destruction is the only constant. I have never believed that the arc of history really moves toward justice. The norm is slaughter. Peace and decency are fragile and hard won.

These feelings have accelerated to a debilitating degree post election. I once wrote that it is impossible to be melancholy at the Lexington Market; the overwhelming sensations eradicate interior doubt and sabotaging self-torture.


But with the announcement that the market, as it exists, will be destroyed, my heart broke even further. (On Dec. 2, city officials said that Lexington Market would be rebuilt as a modern, glass-enclosed structure and then the old one would be razed.)

I once also wrote that the city itself is too big to understand but if I could understand Lexington Market, I might understand something more about the city. It is a microcosm of the city, which itself contains all of the contradictions of post-industrial America.

So I look again at the market as I think about the world.

I finished my giant story about Lexington Market the week that Freddie Gray was arrested. I had spent months on the story. The management of the market eventually gave me a desk in a conference room on the mezzanine up above Berger's and I could look down on the market itself, in an abstract way, as I wrote, having been in the catacombs below and every nook and cranny. It was exactly the angle on the market that Pieter Bruegel's paintings have, just slightly elevated, but by being so, one became even more engrossed in the bustle and thrum and life of the crowd.

It is my favorite thing I've ever written. I hid secrets in it. The Bruegel painting, for one. But the big one is that the story took place on the week of Easter. I ate the shad roe at Faidley's. I went into the catacombs, which the manager was not even aware of. And then, coming up above the ground was followed by a break and a street preacher preaching about resurrection.

The painting I kept thinking of was 'The Fight Between Carnival and Lent.'

I was talking to someone about the market today. He said that I was just against change. But that's not it. In fact, my big market story was situating the current changes within the constantly changing landscape of Lexington.

I wanted to capture what this market is as well as I could in prose, knowing that it would soon forever be lost. It is everything that I like in the world all in one place, confusion, bustle, controlled chaos, accident, encounter, polyglot, secret languages, whispered offers, hawking, hustling, eating, drinking. I called it a palace of palaver.

And all of this comes from the people, not the place. Some people have pointed out that the 1957 building isn't all that old or all that historic just like the Mechanic and McKeldin Fountain weren't all that old or all that historic.

There is a war in the city against mid-century architecture and the needed upgrades at the market have fallen into its sphere. Much of the reasoning behind the desire to change the market is aesthetic.

The regime of $RB was characterized by this overriding philosophy: If you build shiny new stuff, shiny new people will come. Not the kind of people who can hang out at Lexington Market in the middle of the day, but the kind of people who are going to be working in unspecified but spiffy jobs and have a lot of disposable income to blow in a limited time.

But the architectural and aesthetic ideas embraced by those who make these decisions are laughable. As brutalist architecture like McKeldin Fountain is hailed around the world, our regime thinks it's outdated and destroys it all. And the replacement for McKeldin Fountain? Some ridiculous laser waterfall wall that looks like it was sold at Spencer's in the mall in 1987 and at the Brookstone in the airport last year.

They imitate what they think looks "modern" or "contemporary" or now. But because they are just imitations of ideas that are supposed to define a period, they are period pieces even before they are finished. They will be more dated by next year than the things they replace on the day they open.

When my big story on the market came out, we called it "The Battles of Lexington" because it was about the constant battle for what the market would be.


It was still on the stands when, after chaos erupted at Camden Yards on April 25, the market's windows were smashed.

I walked by it when everyone had finally left Howard and Pratt and I saw people running in through the broken windows.

Not much damage was done to the market, but after what came next, I will never use the word "battle" loosely again.

But there is a connection between the ideas of the Uprising and the renovation of the market. In all three redevelopment plans, the arcade was going to be destroyed. The arcade is the part of the market that makes least money per square foot. It has few vendors. It is where you can stand and laugh and talk and see some music. It is where you can eat Park's fried chicken standing at a table and watch the people pass.

In the early '80s, when the arcade was first proposed by mayor William Donald Schaefer, he attached to it a crazy idea called the "Great Sound and Sight Kiosk," a visionary, but insane, 30-foot $300,000 kiosk "featuring electronic messages, a figure that rings a bell on the hour and television screens to show everything from soap operas to political conventions," as promotional materials put it at the time.

The spirit of the arcade would have been killed by these screens and by rejecting the kiosk, the city saved the arcade from being a period piece, hearkening in its architecture more to the Paris of the 19th century than the U.S. of the 1980s.

But despite my melancholy, there is also a lot of confusion about what's happening at the market. Some vendors, who did not want to be identified, were furious about the announcement because it made it seem like destruction of Lexington Market was imminent. They saw no reason to make the announcement now, just before the holidays, except to benefit the outgoing mayor. Especially since the main benefit of the current plan is that it allows the old market to stay open during the construction of the new one.

Even those in the market's management were a little surprised. "It was a little bit of a surprise to us in terms of the timing," said Dave O'Donnell, the Director of Development for the Baltimore Public Markets Corporation. "But we knew that there was an announcement coming. We'd been working on the project for several months to get it ahead. We actually had met with the merchants a couple times to discuss with the management where we were. We weren't entirely surprised by the [former] mayor's announcement but she did work very hard to get the project to this point and obviously wanted to make sure the announcement happened during her administration."

Mayor Catherine Pugh did not respond by press time.

O'Donnell cautions against reading too much into what has been released so far. "We are very much still in concept design and we're still in the schematic phase; we're probably 8-10 months from construction documents and as you know with all design projects there will be changes in that period due to cost, function, feedback, etc.," he said. "I don't think in any way shape or form that in three years you'll be able to take a picture of the market and it will match the renderings we have."


But according to vendors, the Sun's Dec. 2 headline "Plan calls for razing, rebuilding Lexington Market" could keep people from coming to the market. Especially since it was followed three days later by another headline that initially read "One killed outside Lexington Market in Baltimore, police say." The word "outside" was later replaced with "near" since the shooting occurred at Eutaw and Fayette, closer to the Hippodrome than Lexington Market.

"Its our small businesses that we have inside the market when things get misstated like that," O'Donnell said. "We've spoken with the local media and said 'just to be clear, by doing that, you're affecting the small businesses inside Lexington Market."

O'Donnell says that regardless of the ultimate plan, the market is still improving. And, despite the privatization of the Cross Street Market, he says Lexington Market will remain a public market.

And there are new things happening. When I stopped in on a recent afternoon, a new Farm Alliance stall was selling fresh local produce from as close as Sandtown.

"We want to get back to the locally sourced," said Stacey Pack, Communications and Marketing Manager for Lexington Market and Baltimore Public Markets. "And we want to do it in a big way and an impactful way."

The Farm Alliance stall allows customers who are using a SNAP or EBT card to get twice the food for the same price (a $10 bag of produce for $5). And on the second Wednesday of every month, there will be a different vegan chef serving food. The first one, run by Chef Bey, sold out in two hours.

So: The Lexington Market won't close any time soon; it is not being privatized; and there is still new stuff coming in. And, according to O'Donnell, we should expect to hear about plans for the West Market building, which will not be destroyed, and the restaurant underneath the parking garage (with a secret passage leading to the catacombs) sometime soon.

So maybe things aren't quite as bad as they seemed, I thought. But then I returned from the actual market to look at the renderings again and felt suddenly like I was stuck in Bethesda.

But still, this is Baltimore and maybe nothing will happen at all.