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Amid the bustle, a whiff of lavender


PEOPLE are just beginning to "feel out" the new light rail line. But for those who live to the north and work downtown, it's a splendid way to commute, save gas and help save the environment.

Many commuters are leaving the trains at Lexington Mall (at Howard Street) and walking the three short blocks east to offices on Charles. These three blocks of West Lexington, which many commuters are seeing for the first time, provide a 1992 sampling of Baltimore's African-American culture.

But 30 years ago . . .

These blocks were street, not mall, and vehicular traffic helped to create the confused, cacophonous world that it was. It was a churning mix of people, streetcars, cars and vendors (shopping bags, roasted chestnuts, hot peanuts).

You entered this very special bit of Baltimore, then as now, at Howard. There the similarity of the two eras ends.

At Howard on your right was Read's (now Rite Aid); on your left, Stewart's (now Stewart's Mall).

In view, in these first two blocks (Howard to Park, Park to Liberty) were Woolworth's, Grant's, Tuerke's (leather goods), the New Theater, Julius Gutman's, Castleberg's, Kreske's, Loft Candies.

Then, crossing Liberty STreet, Read's, the "Mr. Peanut" store, Hahn's Shoes, Ritz Camera, A.S. Beck, the Century (upstairs), the Valencia movies, Glaxton's, Maron's, Kay Jewelry.

Curiously, there was a lone vendor who worked the crowd in front of the Century, selling, of all things, sprigs of lavender. Incongruous! Along that rough-and-tumble street of urban grime and disorder, one could breathe the soft scent of lavender!

But it was known that plans for Charles Center would wipe out the Liberty-to-Charles block and so deaden the entire three-block stretch. Lexington Street, from Howard to Charles, seemed doomed.

At noon Jan. 6, 1961, the wrecker's ball knocked down the north wall of the unoccupied O'Neill's department store, then on the southwest corner of Lexington at Charles (where One Charles Center is today), thus officially beginning the Charles Center project. (O'Neill's had closed in 1955.)

Not unexpectedly, at about that time pedestrian and vehicular traffic along those blocks began to dwindle, and everyone knew that the first two blocks of West Lexington Street were dying. One merchant said, "It's like doing business in Virginia City after the Comstock lode gave out."

The unhappy chapter ended June 28, 1961, when the city barricaded the one block (from Charles to Liberty) at both ends. (The Century's last picture show was, ironically, "Song Without End.")

Some of the merchants moved. Some went out of business. The vendors packed up and left.

Few of the gray-flannel men and women walking down Lexington Mall to Charles today are of an age to remember this stretch at its busiest.

Just as well. How would you ever explain the guy who, in the middle of all that hubbub, sold lavender?

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