Vendors seek answers about Lafayette Market


The merchants at the Lafayette Market have a reprieve, but it's still not making them happy.

Faced with a December deadline to leave the market for renovations, the merchants protested and even hired a lawyer. In response, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on Monday paid a visit to the time-worn market at the corner of Lafayette Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore and told vendors the market would not be shuttered for repairs.

The good spirits caused by the mayor's visit were short-lived.

When the confirmation memo arrived, however, it made no mention of closing sections of the market. It simply said the market "may be temporarily closed" and there was still no written guarantee that every vendor in the market would regain a spot after improvements are made.

"We are not happy," So Suh, president of the Lafayette Market Merchants Association, said yesterday. "We want to keep the stores open. We want clear guarantees."

Mayor Schmoke also said yesterday that no arrangements for closing the market or renovating it are set in stone. He said a committee of merchants, neighborhood organizations, city government and the Enterprise Foundation is being created to discuss the matter.

The mayor said no date had been set for the committee to make its report, but that it might be by December or even earlier.

"They want us to apply to stay here," Mr. Suh said. "We have to come back to the foundation."

The Enterprise Foundation has been developing a comprehensive plan to attack the poverty and related problems in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. Renovating Lafayette Market is a part of that plan, but foundation officials have been reluctant to discuss them.

Calls to Enterprise Foundation officials yesterday were not returned.

Ella Johnson, a member of the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, also was hesitant yesterday about discussing plans for the market. But she did say she understood the merchants now in the market might have to reapply for a spot after renovations are complete.

"They won't be able to come back and do anything," Ms. Johnson said. "It will have to be within the development plans."

That plan is expected to include fewer fast-food vendors and more grocers, butchers and bakers. Mr. Schmoke's memo also said he supported the idea of transferring the market's management from the city to a nonprofit, private corporation.

Jennifer Coates, former president of the Nehemiah Homes Owners Association, said yesterday a lot of changes will have to be made before she and most of the residents of that 3-year-old subdivision of rowhouses will go to Lafayette Market to shop.

"I don't go in there now," Ms. Coates said. "You just have a lot of fast-food places. People go to the markets in their old neighborhoods. That's what I do."

Mayor Schmoke yesterday said he understood the merchants' fears. Many are Korean immigrants, some of whom have said they believe there is an effort to get them to leave the largely African-American community.

"Some people have raised that. But overall what I get from the neighbors is just a sense that they want quality merchandise and they want quality service. I believe we can have a market that has merchants of all different types of backgrounds," said the mayor.

Erma McDuffie, who operates the Pick Ur Own produce store in the market, said she is one of three African-Americans among the 28 merchants in Lafayette Market. She said she believes that the market needs to be changed, but not because most of the merchants are Korean.

"There are too many fast food places," she said. "A market is made for meats and vegetables. We only have one meat store. So why come to Lafayette Market when you can get what you want at some of these other places?"

Mrs. McDuffie said loiterers are also a problem and that when shoppers do get inside "they can't shop for the beggars."

Despite those problems, Choon Ja Rim, who with her husband, Hak Chan Rim, operates the Fish World seafood store, says closing Lafayette Market for renovations, for any length of time, would be a disaster.

"I am 24 years in this market," Mrs. Rim said. How come they say we go? I can't go. My life is here. Customers who came here as children call me mom. My happy life is here. Money doesn't matter. This neighborhood is low-income. We are not making money."

A customer, Katherine Leslie, said she has been coming to Lafayette Market 13 years. She said she shops at the Rims' fish market because they treat customers with respect. "I don't want to see their business closed," she said.

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