Old community spirit lives amid the hubbub of Northeast Market

The Baltimore Sun

Don't stand near the doors of the Northeast Market if you can't deal with surging lunchtime crowds. This is the food court for the Monument Street business corridor, the extended Johns Hopkins East Baltimore campus and plenty of people who live north of Patterson Park.

The Northeast Market is all about what old city markets should be, bustling centers of their communities. They are also delightfully free of attitude, fancy prices and pretense. I often indulge in people theater - that is, observing life as it's played out. And at this time of the year, this is the place to catch an unexpected smile during the matinee hour.

Numerous Hopkins medical people take their lunch here, and I am happy to report they do not all observe what we are warned about healthy eating. It is reassuring to watch physicians in their coats and embroidered name badges order a chicken noodle soup, overstuffed cold-cut submarine sandwich, bag of potato chips and a diet soda. They may eat half and throw the rest away, but I doubt it.

The Northeast Market stall keepers are highly independent people who do not worry about the kind of logical organization of a department store or suburban mall. This market is an exercise in well-organized confusion, where women's Sunday hats are stacked in a stall that faces a food vendor selling cooked string beans. A few stalls away is an AT&T; cell phone operation and a place to buy lottery tickets and cigarettes, which cannot be smoked within the market confines.

This is a market that observes Baltimore traditions. Nine fresh shucked oysters at the seafood counter go for $11. Stalls promote pigs' heads and smoked pigs' feet. There's also a large vegetable and fruit counter. There is no part of a chicken that is not sold here. However, do not look for artisan cheeses, truffles and peasant breads.

The market is mostly a huge restaurant that offers some highly local favorites. At Rex's sandwich counter, there is a Fat American sandwich, a name that did nothing to deter its sales. The clerk explained to me that the Fat American is American cheese, bologna and two types of ham (hot and sliced) on a sub roll. There also a triple turkey sandwich involving Cajun, smoked and honey maple turkey.

Sandwich competition is evident. Harry's stall, a favorite among longtime customers, has a "famous coldcut" for $1.75.

Standing on East Monument Street, at Chester, I had some spectacular Baltimore views. It's one of the few places where you can watch both the Amtrak corridor trains, and in the distance, the CSX freights that cross along the Clifton park embankment. As you look north along Chester, there are the three towers in the perspective - Trinity AME Church, the American Brewery and the Clifton Mansion.

Adding to the setting are the former homes of the State Theater and the old Levinson and Klein furniture store, now both part of the Hopkins complex.

But has the Baltimore of Hairspray days really gone away? I was beginning to think so until there, on East Monument Street, is a surviving John's Bargain Store.

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