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Rodricks: Shop at Lexington Market, or else the rat wins

The rat be damned, I shop at Lexington Market as a culinary adventure, as a civic obligation and as a way to remind myself that I am human. Life is not virtual reality. It’s the real thing. It’s an Asian-American woman, an African-American woman and the son of a Portuguese immigrant standing next to long bins of iced fish, comparing notes on the best way to make codfish cakes, and all three of us acknowledging that what we’re talking about is a fishier version of the original Baltimore coddie.

You can’t get moments like that in cyberspace, hon.

I know: Diversity is not for everyone. Baltimore is not for everyone. Some people like life to be spotless and bland, as close to vanilla as possible; they cringe at the odd, frown at the unfamiliar, shudder at the unpredictable. Such people never planned to shop at Lexington Market, even before the infamous bakery rat video went viral and, according to merchants, badly hurt their summer business.

But I write here for the adventurous and reasonable Baltimoreans-at-heart, people who realize, from the news of the last three years, that the city you live in — or the city your parents or grandparents lived in, the city your children or grandchildren might one day call home — has been in a lousy and depressing spiral. And now comes news that Lexington Market, as foundational an institution as you will find in Mobtown, might be brought down by a terrorist rat.

Who’s fault is the rat? I don’t dismiss the matter as one of public concern. But, please. Anyone who has dealt with rodents — either as a homeowner or the owner of a restaurant or other establishment — knows what a frustrating problem they are. That a fat rat managed to get inside a bakery case in a large, old public market in a city with a rat problem is revolting but not surprising. I mean, what are the odds of that happening? I’d say not horrible. Hey, it’s happened before. Some 40 years ago, a Baltimore bakery went out of business after published reports that it had baked “rodent traces” and roaches into its products.

Was it fair? When you step back and think about it — that that bygone bakery had baked millions of loaves of bread without a rodent inside, that millions of people have had successful, no-rodent visits to Lexington Market — the reaction seems unreasonably unforgiving.

But, as I said, we are humans. Life is real. Life is not virtual. It’s very hard — maybe impossible — to restore public confidence once a customer decides to go public with his rodent trauma.

The same fate could befall Lexington Market. But that would be horrible. Why?

Because Lexington Market is a Baltimore institution. It’s one of the oldest public markets in the country.

It’s not for everyone. It’s not a supermarket. It’s not a mall. It’s not even flat: The floor slopes 20 feet from the Paca street side to the Eutaw street side.

For a lot of people, Lexington Market is a thing of beloved memory — a place they adore, so much so that they haven’t visited it since 1980.

For many others, especially residents of West Baltimore, it’s a place to weekly buy fish, meat and poultry, fruit and vegetables, prepared sandwiches and hot foods. On Tuesday, I had a great time spending my money there — fresh chicken wings from Joy Poultry, dried and salted cod from Harbor Fish, slab bacon and spare ribs from Amos Meats, a slice of cured ham from J.A. Regan, an order of stewed collards from Healthy Choice, bananas from Leslie’s Fruit and my quinquennial purchase of fried chicken livers from Lexington Fried Chicken.

But, for all the pleasure the market provides, I agree with the merchants: The place needs help. City government, through multiple administrations, has failed not only to maintain basic stewardship — that is, good maintenance and public safety — but it has failed to promote Lexington Market as a civic treasure and encourage new investment. Lack of consistency in policy and strategy has been a serious flaw in local governance, and that includes the city’s approach to the market. The rat is a symbol of neglect of this civic treasure. There is a plan to tear Lexington Market down and start all over again. I agree with architect Klaus Philipsen: Such a proposal with no action — Lexington in limbo — probably hurts the market as much as anything. It should be scrapped. Instead, the market needs bright paint, more lights and skylights, improved air conditioning, and lease deals that entice more merchants. It needs a long-term marketing campaign that appeals to its regular base of customers as well as to tourists. The whole area needs a Main Street-style upgrade. Lexington Market needs leadership.

While we’re waiting for that, Baltimoreans-at-heart need to support the market, or else we’ll be sitting around someday, regretting that we let the rat win.

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