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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

All said and just about done, Cross Street Market prepares to reopen

Sometimes — check that, many times — I think we do not know what we want, and I mean diehard Baltimoreans, the ones who actually live in the city and plan to stay here until they die or polar bears show up on icebergs in the Inner Harbor, whichever comes first. Consider comments received here about the area formerly known as the west side Superblock, the subject of Sunday’s column.

Some readers expressed a concern that redevelopment of that long-blighted area would lead to “gentrification,” or an influx of middle-class or affluent people. Now, I would share that concern if the area formerly known as the Superblock were inhabited. But since it’s vacant — a common condition throughout a city that once had 300,000 more residents than it does today — I don’t think gentrification is a thing there. I want to ask the people who are worried about an invasion of the middle-class horde: What do you want? Baltimore has plenty of Maryland’s poor, and the poor need affordable housing, and developers should be required to include it when they build. But don’t tell me we should at the same time be fending off the more affluent.

Such are the arguments we get into here. Back in the 1970s, the city was losing population fast, and its tax base with it. Building up the Inner Harbor, and establishing Harborplace, was part of the effort to counter negative trends, but a lot of Baltimoreans resented the whole thing and some tried to stop it. The emphasis on the harbor did not provide a direct benefit to the city’s poor, but the alternative — doing nothing to take advantage of the post-industrial waterfront — would have been far worse. Problem is, the second phase of the vaunted Baltimore Renaissance benefited mostly areas already benefiting from the first phase, while disinvestment continued on the east and west sides. So we live with that today.

Another Baltimore argument broke out over the Cross Street Market — a place that some people loved and some people considered meh, and then, when it was time to make the old place a better place, some people cried foul that the new place would not be like the old place. And there were complaints, and lawsuits, and accusations that the company hired to renovate the old market would go upscale, even though a lot of people who live in South Baltimore — and Federal Hill, specifically — wanted something better and agreed that the market needed an overhaul.

And you can’t really renovate an old public market — a place with outdated, grease-clogged plumbing — unless you move the vendors out for a while. But Caves Valley Partners tried to keep some of the vendors in place and the market open during construction. And still people complained, and lawsuits were filed. There were lease disputes. There were negotiations. The developer wanted the old vendors to try something new — a produce stall to sell drinks from a juice machine, for instance — and some didn’t want any part of it. Most of them are gone, and, as a result, some people will hold grudges. Resentment happens when old meets new in this town.

Now the major part of the Cross Street Market renovation is almost complete, and starting this month, customers will be able to see what the result of all this was, and I’m going to guess that they will be pleased. I checked the prices that one of the returning vendors, Steve’s Lunch, plans to charge for his sandwiches, and there’s nothing frightening there. That’s a good sign.

Arsh Mirmiran, the front man for Caves on the project and the one who took most of the heat, is confident that the market will have a good mix of food, drink, fresh meats — from a returning butcher, Fenwick Choice Meats — fish and produce. In a conversation last week, and in a letter published in The Sun, Mirmiran emphasized the ethnic and racial diversity — black, white, Asian, Haitian, Greek-American — among new sellers of prepared foods. The lineup of vendors has five times as many city residents as the previous one, he says. Five of the stalls will be operated by women. The Sweet Shoppe is coming back. You’ll be able to get craft beer in crowlers, wine and cocktails. There’s a fried chicken place coming that will make news, but the deal isn’t done yet, and Mirmiran swore me to secrecy.

Last comment on this, and it’s more about the physical space than the food offerings:

If you visited Cross Street Market at any time during the last 40 years, you never would have known that it had large windows along its length. That’s because, at some point after the market opened in 1952, someone removed the windows and filled them with cinder block. Despite ceiling lamps that burned all day, the market gained an adjective that stuck: Dark. I doubt the lack of natural light stopped anyone from going there, but it was certainly something that newcomers and tourists noticed. When business fell off during the last decade, the place seemed even darker.

So I was five degrees short of shocked when, during a tour of the renovated market, I noticed sunlight. Lots of sunlight from big windows along both sides of the market. Caves Valley and its contractors discovered the old window openings during construction so they used them, making a huge improvement in the market’s atmosphere. And that’s one thing, at least, that everybody involved knew they wanted.

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