Bringing the farm to the parking lot

The Waverly Farmers' Market is more than just a place to buy produce, it's a neighborhood gathering spot.
In the middle of an asphalt sea of parking meters, farmers pile portable steel tables high with cabbages and carrots, apples and pears. Other folks brave a stiff wind to sell bread, homemade soaps, pizzas with crusts made from spelt (an ancient grain) and fresh coffee. A neighborhood stalwart named Alan Barysh patiently promotes the "Revolution" newspaper. Aging hippies, younger hipsters with kids, and old timers mill around in what has become north-central Baltimore's most popular Saturday tradition.

Although this scene is officially known as the 32nd Street Farmers' Market, most people know it by the neighborhood where it doesn't quite reside. Founders of the weekly event, which runs Saturdays year-round from 7 a.m. to noon, decided to hold it on the metered Waverly parking lot -- which isn't in Waverly per se, but behind the shops on the west side of Greenmount Avenue. Since 1981, the market has become a destination point for Waverly denizens and those from points much more distant.

"We regularly get people from Towson and from as far away as Anne Arundel County," says Vernon "Marc" Rey, president of the 32nd Street Farmers' Market board. "It's the ambience of the market that brings people in."

More than 500 people come each week to check out the wares of 32 vendors, who pay $275 per 12 feet of space every six months, and come from distant parts of Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. The fee goes to pay for insurance, landscaping, city permits, security and a setup crew.

For local folks, the market offers a chance to see what community groups, who often rent tables, are up to, and to catch up with neighbors. "Every community should have a gathering spot and we're lucky we have this one," says Myles Hoenig, president of the Waverly Improvement Association.

Besides celery buyers, the market draws eccentrics like Barysh, who represents Waverly's independent streak as well as the neighborhood's reputation as a home for dissenters and outsiders, and Herman Heyn, the street corner astronomer who encourages people to look through his telescope. "They've always been part of the market," says Rey.

But the market's board has tried to change it with the times. As a wider array of ethnic groups has moved in, the board has recruited more African- American and Asian vendors. "We've tried to increase the variety of what we have," Rey says. "It used to be all fruits and vegetables, but there's more demand now for prepared foods, for flowers, for baked goods. We've tried to accommodate that."

With money left over from fees, the board has also tried to help out neighborhood charities. It has handed out a total of $5,000 in grants annually to homeless shelters, libraries and schools. "We're a nonprofit ourselves," says Rey, "so it's important that we can provide some help to the community."