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Lexington Market and the makings of a ‘great good place’ for post-pandemic Baltimore | COMMENTARY

Thibault Manekin, co-founder of Seawall Development, took a walk through the new Lexington Market during a Saturday break in construction.
Thibault Manekin, co-founder of Seawall Development, took a walk through the new Lexington Market during a Saturday break in construction. (Baltimore Sun staff)

A year from now, if the pandemic has ended, the ribbon cutting for the new Lexington Market could turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.

It could be the place where Baltimoreans, by residency or by affinity, get to do things they’ve been yearning to do since the coronavirus arrived — gather in a big, busy public space to eat, drink, shop, people-watch and feel connected to the beat of life.

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The new Lexington Market won’t be the only venue for mental recuperation from coronavirus isolation. But the nature of the place and the timing of its opening could be just what we need.

That need has always been there, it just intensified during the pandemic.

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More than 30 years ago, sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote of the desire of people to gather in “great good places,” whether a public market or tavern or coffee shop. He lamented the loss of “third places,” away from home and work, where spontaneous encounters with other human beings easily take place. “America does not rank well on the dimension of her informal public life,” Oldenburg wrote. “Increasingly, her citizens are encouraged to find their relaxation, entertainment, companionship, even safety almost entirely within the privacy of homes that have become … a retreat from society.”

That unnatural condition worsened over the past year.

So, once past the pandemic, I predict an outburst of desire to know the “great good place” again.

Baltimore’s public markets fit that bill, and Lexington Market more so because of its history and central location. Transformed into a long, airy shed between Eutaw and Paca Streets, it will test the city’s racial and class dynamics and our desire for diversity. Its success will say a great deal about the future of the city — the whole region, in some ways.

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Seawall, the Baltimore-based company hired to develop the new market next to the old one, wrestled with a big question, in the words of its co-founder, Thibault Manekin: “How do we build the new Lexington Market so every single person from Baltimore feels like they have to come here?”

The company has performed a delicate balancing act to set up the market for success without pushing away longtime customers. Getting community input was a huge piece of the undertaking.

Saturday morning at the construction site, Manekin was quick to mention the dozens of conversations he and his associates have had with Baltimoreans from across the city about what they wanted in the new $40 million market.

What they did not want was “another R. House.”

That’s the Seawall project in Remington, described by Zagat as an “upscale food hall in a redone warehouse.” (In fact, it was once an automotive building.) It’s a cool place to eat and drink, but not what people want to see in a new Lexington Market.

At the same time, it’s been obvious for years that the old public market needed a big lift.

“One of the things we heard over and over, especially with the current vendors, is that a lot of the spending power that was coming to Lexington in the past, whether from downtown or the county, has not felt comfortable coming here in years,” Manekin said. “Coupled with that was that any new development, anything that transforms Lexington Market, needs to be done in a really inclusive way that protects and honors the legacy customers who have counted on affordable goods and services at the market forever.”

So, not R. House.

“It’s absolutely not R. House,” he said. “In our first few town hall-style meetings, the No. 1 question was, ‘Is it going to be R House?’ and, ‘Are you guys coming down here to gentrify it?’ Look, we don’t own the building. The decisions that are being made aren’t really ours. They’re being done collectively.”

Manekin was most excited about the hundreds of applications received for the 50 vendor spots in the new market. “And the demographics [of the applicants] are amazing,” he said. “Over 60% of applicants are black-owned businesses. Over 50% are women-owned [businesses], and over 50% are city resident-owned businesses.”

Manekin and his associates heard a lot about the need to see more Black vendors in a market where so many Black Baltimoreans shop for produce, meats, fish and prepared foods. “It was something we heard from the Black community because less than 5% of the vendors in the current market are Black,” Manekin said. “So the No. 1 thing was like, ‘Look, if we’re going to trust you guys, if we’re going to give this market another shot, we want to make sure it represents Baltimore in its beautiful diversity.’”

Committees made up of customers, small business owners, community representatives and government officials will review and select vendors. “It’s not like Seawall is picking our friends and carefully curating the place,” Manekin said. “It’s residents and city leaders from all over who are reviewing the applications.”

They’re looking for diversity in food offerings and price points.

“This is not a real estate project,” Manekin said. “The designing, financing and building of this building are the easiest parts. This is an opportunity to prove that a single building, brought together in an incredibly inclusive way, can unite our city.”

Maybe even unite the whole region, pull in tourists, all yearning, post-pandemic, to know again a great good place.

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