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A section of Baltimore’s Lexington Market falls, but the market has staying power

The Park's Hamburger stand is seen inside Lexington Market after demolition contractors took down the first wall Wednesday.
The Park's Hamburger stand is seen inside Lexington Market after demolition contractors took down the first wall Wednesday. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

One of the several versions of downtown’s Lexington Market was demolished this week. What came down was a 1982 arcade built in the bed of Lexington Street. It came along as a place to eat a market lunch in the period when shoppers had more or less ceased using this place as the spot where they bought the raw ingredients for a Sunday dinner.

The arcade was designed to accommodate a large seating area for people to enjoy that crab cake or beef tongue sandwich with a dill pickle.

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There was entertainment too on Saturdays — wailing saxophone and jazz groups that drew enthusiastic crowds.

Lexington Market has been around for centuries because it is a survivor and changes to meet the circumstances it serves.

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The Seawall Development people who are charged with creating a new version of Lexington Market do not have an enviable assignment. Assorted Baltimoreans have an idea of what this place should be, and those assorted ideas are as different as the varieties of chocolates in a pound box of the Rheb’s candy that was once sold in the market.

About the time the 1982 market addition rose, in the administration of Mayor William Donald Schaefer, the downtown (initially at Market Place and later under the Jones Falls Expressway) and Waverly farmers markets became popular. Shoppers liked being outdoors and not being cooped up in a supermarket.

This is part of a Baltimore market tradition — the outdoor sellers who set up on rented curb space on overflowing market days.

The masonry Lexington Market complex that will not be torn down as part of the current refurbishment dates from the early 1950s and was promoted by Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro Jr., the father of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Tommy Junior, also a mayor, who died last year.

The market afforded a memorable slice of Baltimore. One of the regular shoppers there in the 1960s was the woman who arrived with her pet rooster in a shopping bag. She addressed him as Henry.

The market also had foods that the national grocery chains did not carry. There were refrigerated cases of blood pudding, head cheese and inventories favored by the weird food shows on the Food Channel. It was a shoppers’ destination for shad and its roe — and for the really adventurous, skinned muskrat. There were veal, lamb, pork and beef body parts to delight a veterinary anatomy student.

And these were not curiosities. The meat varietals that would torture a vegan sold well and went home, often hand-carried on the No. 8 and 15 streetcars, in brown paper shopping bags printed with the names of the proud butchers.

While pickled pigs’ feet had their connoisseurs, the market was not all exotica. Baltimoreans savored their roasted peanuts at the Konstant’s stall and considered it good luck to buy a bag on the Orioles’ Opening Day. Konstant also made, in the market basement in copper kettles, Brazil nut taffy, black-walnut brittle and pecan taffy. There was a molasses taffy that Baltimore dentists loved because it sent them so much repair work.

For many, all aisles led to Rheb’s candies, where stalwart hand packers and wrappers portioned out almond bark, chocolate dipped marzipan and something called an orange cream. Some customers composed neat lists and dictated choices to the patient candy wrappers and boxers.

Some Baltimore shoppers will recall the man who grated fresh coconut and horseradish. That scent was so strong he had a small electric fan to send the vapors the other way. There was also a 5-cents-for-all-you-can-drink buttermilk dairy bar. That stall keeper, from Carroll County, sold amazing butter and ice cream as well.

And as unpretentious as the old market was, you had to know to ask for these treats.

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