Flower Mart needs new ideas, same old site


Can there be an authentic Flower Mart in War Memorial Plaza? Never.

You can sell crab cakes at Holliday and Lexington streets. You can offer lemons speared on a peppermint stick there. You can set out flats of geraniums and petunias in the plaza. It would nevertheless be a synthetic mart, as dull as those fake Flower Marts of the early 1970s held at Charles Center.

Fake is the word because a Flower Mart not staged around the base of the Washington Monument is like a crab cake sold by a fast-food restaurant. No, thank you.

I do not envy the task of the Women's Civic League, a time-honored Baltimore organization that tries to do good works but also has the responsibility of staging the Flower Mart, an annual fund-raiser that traditionally gets the spring season under way. The Civic League originated the mart. It is theirs to keep up.

It is an event that thousands of Baltimoreans have attended. Many started going to the event when they were in baby strollers pushed by their mothers or grandmothers. Many a high-schooler hooked classes after lunch to visit the Flower Mart in the 1950s and 1960s.

In those years in Baltimore when there were not different festivals being staged most every warm-weather weekend, the Flower Mart was a big deal, usually a cloudless first Wednesday in May when all the world looked like one big bouquet of roses.

For young people, the memory of the day set a standard by which all subsequent Flower Marts would be compared. That's one tough comparison. Would any day ever seem as sunny as that afternoon in 1963 when you were 17 and you evaded an Eastern High School French class? Was any French class ever as much fun as a happy afternoon spent in Mount Vernon Place with all your friends?

I doubt the Flower Mart organizers would have announced their intention to move to War Memorial Plaza if they had postponed this past May's event.

In the face of a highly discouraging weather forecast, the Women's Civic League announced its intention to stage the festival. The day dawned gloomy and threatening.

By 10 a.m., it began to rain and never let up. By 1 p.m., when Mount Vernon Place would normally be filled with people, the mart was an utter washout and failure. So much for believing that you can always beat the weather no matter what the odds. The group lost money and, more important, lost the resolve to stay on Mount Vernon Place.

In recent years, the Flower Mart has been growing thin on substance. Were it not for the Mount Vernon Place setting, with its Victorian architecture, green lawns, vistas up and down Charles Street, the Flower Mart might just as well be a second-rate church bazaar.

The crab cakes are from a caterer and the offerings of flowers for sale are less than most roadside stands. The lemon sticks have a certain charm but something I think you have to be a fourth-generation Baltimorean to appreciate -- sucking raw lemon juice through a length of peppermint candy.

The Flower Marts have been coming up short on ideas and content. Their tendency toward disorganization, complacency and low-key shabbiness lend a certain homespun charm to the day, but this can take you only so far.

It is time for some new thinking and help from places that are not a part of the Women's Civic League. Couldn't this be a day for this part of Charles Street and the Mount Vernon neighborhood to show off its best? Aren't there enough restaurants, museums, churches, schools and businesses nearby to supply the raw material for a better Flower Mart?

The Civic League might try opening its doors to fresh ideas to strengthen and renew the event. It may have to rely heavily on neighborhood businesses and cultural institutions, many of which may probably want to steer away from the mart -- at first. I bet this reluctance would melt as a few brave people signed up to work on the event.

Maybe the present Flower Mart crisis might be used to a good end -- a chance to shake the event to its foundation, keep it on Mount Vernon Place and make the day as memorable as it was three or four golden decades ago.

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