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Lexington Market: Luster fading from 212-year-old hometown jewel


It remains the most exotic bazaar in all of Baltimore.

Some 212 years after it began as an open air market frequented by gamblers and ruffians, Lexington Market is a 266,000-square-foot adventure for palates seeking foods from goat meat to raccoon to hog jowls.

But today, the characters on the fringes of the nation's oldest, continuously operated public market are not the romantic rogues from the seedling years of Baltimore Town. Too often, say some merchants and customers, they are belligerent beggars, thieves, drug addicts and falling-down drunks.

As the neighborhood around Lexington Market continues its decline in the wake of the abandonment of Howard Street by the fTC Hecht's, Hutzler's and Stewart's department stores, the luster is fading from a hometown jewel.

"I think it's still as exciting to come down here as it ever was," said Theodore Edlow, 67, who sells frozen yogurt and remembers the days when women in white gloves shopped at the market after taking their tea at Hutzler's. "But in 20 years, I've seen the class of people who come here change.

"We get a good crowd for an hour-and-a-half at lunch. The rest of the day is on the low end."

Said Yogurt Treet employee Michael Jackson, 35, who grew up working in the market: "There's too many people here with no money and nothing to do."

Market officials -- planning an ice cream festival for July 21 -- argue that downtown is no different from anywhere else; that in this day and age, anything can happen anywhere.

In less than two weeks, this has happened on the streets around Lexington Market:

* Just before 4 a.m. on June 27, one man was killed and another injured when a gunman opened fire on the occupants of a parked car. Police called the dead man an "intended target."

* On July 4, about 2:15 a.m., more than a dozen men sprayed gunfire into a crowd of about 200 people a block from the market, wounding at least five people. Of the gunmen, police said: "They just wanted to see people run."

* And about 8 a.m. Wednesday, just outside a market entrance, a homeless man whacked an acquaintance with a hatchet, sending his victim to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center with a deep gash in his neck.

None of the incidents is directly related to Lexington Market. But the market suffers by association, as the streets around it become a nocturnal magnet for hordes of young people looking for kicks between the bars' closing time and sunrise. Crowds sometimes grow to 700 people or more, police say.

'It's kids. . .'

"What you may have are some carrying guns," said Maj. Leonard Hamm, commander of the Central District.

"It has nothing to do with Lexington Market. It's kids coming to one area to socialize."

To combat the problem, cars simply cruising the area will be routed out during hours before dawn, the commander said.

And Crazy John's, an all-night pizza joint on East Baltimore Street where many kids hang out, has agreed to close on Sunday and Monday from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.

Joanne Dolgow, director of promotions for Lexington Market, resents that middle-of-the-night incidents and a hatchet attack between drunken street people have hurt the market's image.

'Still . . . safe . . . to shop'

"We don't want outside things to destroy the good thing we have here," said Ms. Dolgow, noting that arrests by 18 full-time security officers are largely confined to shoplifters and pickpockets.

"Lexington Market is still a clean, safe, secure place to shop."

Yesterday, one police officer in the market warned a lunchtime shopper that the man who had just asked her for money was a known pickpocket.

And that, says Carmen Caltabiano, is exactly the kind of nuisance that has cost him 25 percent in pizza sales in the last five years.

"Everyday, as soon as you park your car, people are asking you for a dollar," said Mr. Caltabiano, owner of Italian Stallion pizza and a market tenant for 12 years.

"The drug dealing has calmed down a bit, but physically, the neighborhood has deteriorated, with trash and boarded-up buildings.

"The hospital people don't make the two-block walk like they used to. There's not as many tourists as there used to be."

Rent rises annually

Mr. Caltabiano, who pays $50 a square foot to lease his stall, says rent goes up about 5 percent every year. "Rent goes up and our sales go down," he said, adding that he is among at least five of the market's 140 merchants trying to sell their businesses.

"I'm leaving, I'm disgusted," barked Tony Serio, who has spent 60 of his 70 years selling produce at his family's stall.

"You don't have the people who really buy like they used to and you hear too many words you don't want to hear."

Said his son Sam: "It's just not a fun place anymore."

Yet, there is nothing quite like it.

When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town in March, trapeze artist Vivien Larible and her family made the trip to Lexington Market for fresh fish, squid and sea scallops that they took home to cook on the circus train.

Roasted turkeys sit fat and golden for sandwiches carved as fresh as the ones your grandmother makes for a Thanksgiving snack.

If you don't care for a whole sandwich, you can buy a turkey neck for 50 cents.

A bag of roasted peanuts sells for 45 cents and smells divine.

The 'coconut man'

For some, such images are indelible.

Westminster's Richard Krebs missed the "coconut man" so much that he wrote a letter to The Sun in March, asking if anyone knew what had become of him.

Wrote Mr. Krebs: "He started with a whole coconut, holding it with the finger tips of his left hand. In his right hand was a small ax. With deft strokes he cut off the outer shell . . . he would cut a hole in the end of the partially peeled coconut and pour the clear, sweet liquid into your container, to be taken home. . . ."

This vendor will stay

Michael Houvardas has watched his chocolate cookie profits steadily decrease at the Berger's Bakery stall, but vows to stay.

"I see the bad, I see it going down, but your publicity makes us go down even more," said Mr. Houvardas.

"But people come from many states just to see this market, like the aquarium or a museum. We have to protect the Lexington Market the way we protect those things."

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