Lexington Market needs leadership

For someone with city eyes like myself, nature is nice, but what really excites is the sight of the urban scene. It uplifts my soul, renews my faith in humanity and gives me hope for the future.

Maybe that’s why I love markets. Lexington Market in particular. And why I was saddened to read about the market’s continuing problems and that so little progress has been made toward restoring it to its former glory.

And glorious Lexington Market was, with stalls spilling down Eutaw Street for the thousands of shoppers who made weekly trips for shad roe, rock candy and Eastern Shore strawberries. In 1965, when I moved to Baltimore, I soon appreciated that Lexington Market stood just one rung below the Colts in Baltimore’s affectional hierarchy. Coming from staid New England, I found such profound loyalty and pride stimulating and embracing. By shopping at the market, I also found a way of making myself at home. Saturday after Saturday, my husband and I drove downtown with our young sons for custom-cut meats, local, seasonal produce and sticky buns.

But then life got busier, the boys grew up, and the market’s slow decline began — a decline that not even a well-intended, but misconceived, addition in the ‘80s could stem.

Twelve years ago, I was asked to write a history of the market, so I know that Lexington Market has survived and even flourished after suffering far worse fates than its current condition. In 1949, when it consisted of three ramshackle wooden sheds with slap-dash sanitation and jerry-rigged electricity, a fire ripped through the market in the pre-dawn hours of March 25. The market was destroyed, and only the energy and commitment of the city’s mayor at that time, Thomas D’Alesandro II, prevented 150 years of Baltimore tradition from going up in smoke as well. Before the last flame was extinguished, “Tommy” stood among the tangled hoses and soggy ashes and vowed to rebuild.

Within six months, Quonset huts had been erected as temporary quarters until a new market could be constructed. And two years and one month after the first flame licked the old wooden sheds, with 8,000 shoppers cheering “Tommy, Tommy,” Mayor D’Alesandro paraded up the aisle of a gleaming new cathedral of gastronomical delights.

Think of it: two years and one month! From a rubble-strewn ash heap to a fully functional, up-to-date epicurean emporium.

Compare that to today’s vague, rehashed ideas for remedying the market’s problems. Five years ago, the market management announced plans for a $20 million upgrade, but so far not a single shovelful of dirt has been dug. And this, despite tens of thousands of dollars having been spent on research, consultants and a single, third-rate design proposal.

The difference, I believe, is leadership. “Tommy” knew that the market meant more than a place to buy fresh rockfish and chocolate buttercreams. When the crowd cheered “Tommy, Tommy,” they were cheering for their mayor and for themselves as well. Baltimoreans had chosen well. They wanted their market, and they had elected a leader who made sure they got it.

“Tommy” accomplished what he did because he understood the urgency the project demanded, something completely lacking when I read the responses of the market’s current management to today’s woes. But the need for inventive, flexible, practical solutions is urgent today, because, as I have discovered in the 12 years since writing my book, the eradicating power of the past is relentless. And sights like “Rhymin’ Hyman” Pressman parading up Lexington Street and elephants lumbering up Eutaw — sights that I once considered indelible in our shared civic memory — quickly fade away.

Unless today’s leaders restore the market, and soon, Baltimoreans will lose a civic space from which to create common memories. And without that foundation, how can we trust one another to imagine a common future — a future we all can cheer about?

Patricia Schultheis is the author of “Baltimore’s Lexington Market.” Her memoir, “A Balanced Life,” is forthcoming from All Things That Matter Press. Her email is bpschult@yahoo.com.

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