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Flower Mart preserves a genteel time


The Flower Mart is one of those reassuring Baltimore traditions. Like the Preakness, it doesn't change much.

Nobody tries to make too much of this genteel annual street festival sponsored by the Women's Civic League and held the first Wednesday in May around the base of the Washington Monument. Today's is the 77th annual Flower Mart.

At the mart, the crab cakes and lemon sticks will be sold in exactly the same place as they were in most of the years past. The scene recalls the era when nobody owned a color television set and telephones had rotary dials.

It's agreeably frumpy. You'll see women wearing hats and men whose pants cuffs are eight inches above their shoes. You'll probably catch sight of an old Hutzler's shopping bag being carried by someone making the trek up Charles Street to the mart. People are polite. Mothers push babies in strollers. By 3:30 in the afternoon, the event is on its last legs.

Going to the Flower Mart is like going to a family gathering. You know which aunts and cousins will be there and what mood they'll be in. And if you don't show up, you know you'll be missed and talked about.

The Flower Mart is for Baltimoreans, not tourists. In fact, people who didn't grow up with it often wonder what's the big attraction. The flowers could be bought in any garden shop and the food is standard Baltimore street carnival fare.

What the mart does do is give people a chance to revisit an unchanged part of downtown. Mount Vernon Place has none of the salesmanship of the harbor or its pushy ways. The squares are formal and proper. Visitors return here to be reassured that these few blocks are what is best about the old Baltimore they knew in that rotary-dial era.

People visiting the mart will see a clean and tidy Mount Vernon Place.

A construction crew is putting the final coat of cream-colored paint on the 1840s rowhouses at Centre Street and Washington Place, as Charles Street is called in the 600 and 700 blocks. They have been converted into a hostel for elderly tourists. The Washington Monument, which was closed for some time so that lead paint could be removed from the interior walls, is again open to visitors who want to hike its circular staircase to the top. The small parks of Mount Vernon Place are green and lush and the water spray is working in sculptor Grace Turnbull's fountain toward the Cathedral Street side of the parks.

Two years' worth of weathering have been just perfect for the Walters Art Galley group of buildings. The paint on Hackerman House now looks properly seasoned.

Yesterday afternoon, a group of vagrants who usually spend the day on the west park's benches knew that the fair was coming and that they would have to surrender their seats. Some said they would be moving around the corner to the former Greyhound bus station property.

But as delightful as the Mount Vernon Place architecture and landscaping are, people remain the best component of the Flower Mart.

Every year, the Civic League ladies make broad hints that this one may be their last event. And each year they return, dressed in their smocks and hats, ready to serve another thousand-something crab cakes and almost as many lemons spiked with a peppermint candy stick.

Most people don't notice, but the flower mart booths -- those wooden stands set up around the base of the Washington Monument -- are tended by groups representing Baltimore's varied communities.

In years gone by, there have been stands manned by residents of Brooklyn, Arcadia (Harford Road), Guilford, Ashburton, Forest Park, Winchester and Roland Park.

Early in the day, the mayor or other top city official will officiate at a ceremony during which the best sanitation workers are given prizes. It's a nice touch that the Flower Mart makes a garbage collector king or queen for a day. That says a lot about the spirit of Baltimore.

It is definitely not a day to worry about the weather, street crime, politics or the state of the school system. The proper Flower Mart state of mind requires closing your eyes and ears to reality and imagining a Baltimore when courtesy reigned and you had to get assistance from a telephone operator to place a long-distance phone call.

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