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Face lift for city markets


Way up on tiptoes, they raise their voices and point. That's the way customers order at Chuckie's Chicken in Hollins Market, the oldest market in the city, where some stalls are so high you can barely see over them.

"Unless you read lips, it's hard," said Irvin Kaplan, who has owned his stall longer than anyone else still selling in the market and virtually raised his son Chuckie, now of chicken fame, there.

The up-on-the-toes ritual is about to change. The stalls will be lowered, the aisles will be widened and the worn concrete floors will soon be turned to tile at the Southwest Baltimore market.

The renovations, which started last month, are part of an estimated $1.72 million face lift for four city markets: Hollins, Cross Street, Broadway and Northeast.

The work on Hollins is the first renovation for any of the four markets in decades and will include a fresh coat of paint outside, and new lighting, exhaust, plumbing, doors and floors inside.

The $1.7 million cost of renovations is an estimate, said Johnnie O. Williams, director of operations for Baltimore Public Markets Corp., the quasipublic agency that has run the four markets since 1995, when former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke restructured control of the market system.

Williams, appointed by the corporation's eight-member board of directors last month, said he'll have a better sense of renovation costs once work at Hollins Market is finished late next year.

About $400,000 of the renovation money comes from a city grant. The rest comes from the corporation, supported by merchants' rent, Williams said.

Baltimore's public market system dates to 1763, when the first market opened at Gay and Baltimore streets. The gritty shopping meccas - at one time, 11 of them - have been at the heart of city life since.

Many stalls have been passed from generation to generation, owned by the same family for decades.

Kaplan, 72, has owned Jack's Poultry for 47 years. Historic Hollins Market was established in 1835 and named for the Hollins family that owned large tracts of land west of Baltimore.

There hasn't been a "Jack" at the stall since Irvin and Iris Kaplan bought the business in 1953 and didn't have $25 to change the sign that read "Jack."

Irvin - who has been answering to "Old Man Jack" since 1953 - says he is pleased that the market is getting a fresher look.

"I think it will be beautiful," he said.

But he and his wife have a beef with a few of the changes, such as upgrading the air conditioning and heating systems.

"They put heat in 20 years ago, and we didn't need it," said Iris Kaplan, 69, who cooks chicken five days a week for the family business.

She said she's not happy that both Jack's Poultry and her son's adjacent business, Chuckie's Chicken, are being forced to move over a few stalls because of the renovations.

She doesn't agree with the concept of the "food court" that is being created in the same market where H. L. Mencken's mother used to shop.

The prepared foods, such as fried chicken and Chinese food, will soon be on one end of the market. Traditional market fare, such as raw fish, meat and chicken, will be at the other.

But thankfully, say the Kaplans, Hollins will keep its signature white tin ceiling.

The other two city markets are not controlled by Baltimore Public Markets Corp. and will not be part of the renovations. They are the landmark Lexington Market downtown and the old Lafayette Market, off Pennsylvania Avenue, now known as the Avenue Market, which was recast a few years ago with an African theme as a model for market rejuvenation.

When Hollins is finished, Federal Hill's Cross Street Market will follow, with an emphasis on sprucing up its run-down exterior.

No plans have been developed for Northeast Market, north of Patterson Park, or Broadway Market in Fells Point. Improvements to those will depend on the cost of the first two, Williams said.

Some people who shop at the markets, especially Cross Street, on the edge of a gentrifying South Baltimore neighborhood, do it to be part of the city's urban chic movement. But many still go to the 155-year-old Cross Street Market for convenience, out of habit or to see a familiar face.

"People like the personal service we give them," said Mark Nunnally, fourth-generation owner of Nunnally Bros. Choice Meats. "They tell me, 'Your father waited on my grandmother.'"

Bill DeWall, president of the Cross Street Market Association, said changes in the market will mostly be cosmetic and will not alter the feel of the place.

"The rough atmosphere will still be maintained," said DeWall, who has owned The Flower Shop with his wife, Wanda, for more than 20 years. "It will be brighter and more cheerful, that's all."

The original wooden Cross Street Market burned down in 1951. It was rebuilt the next year and has remained, at least physically, almost the same since.

Until about 20 years ago, the markets were filled with meats, fish and vegetables.

As people started cooking less and eating out more, fast food stands selling chicken wings and pretzels began popping up all over the markets.

Williams said he and Ken Kauffman, a Baltimore-based consultant hired as project manager, are serious about preserving the integrity of the markets.

As for the Kaplans, who bought Jack's Poultry for $600 in 1953, they say they're now selling more than 2,000 pounds of raw chicken every day, five days a week.

And soon they'll be doing it on new tile floors.

Said Irvin Kaplan: "It beats working."

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