Lexington Market fire less helpful, more harmful | READER COMMENTARY
For The Baltimore Sun|
Jan 04, 2021 at 12:52 PM
Jacques Kelly’s article detailing the fire that struck Lexington Market in 1949, while fascinating, left out a lot of important contextual information around the fire that destroyed the original shed and the construction of the new market (”Retro Baltimore: How a calamity brought a new Lexington Market,” Dec. 31). If we are to really understand the complexities of Lexington Market’s built history, we must discuss the plans that were already in motion to build a new market structure prior to the fire of 1949.
The fire, which Mr. Kelly describes with great detail, was detrimental not just to the structure, but to the existing vendors of the market as well. According to historian David Chilcoat Osborn in his 1952 dissertation, “A History of the Lexington Market,” less than 5% of the owners of the 186 stalls destroyed had insurance as the “insurance companies considered the old building a poor risk and had withdrawn fire insurance contracts.” Due to their lack of insurance, when the new building was erected, original vendors no longer had any rights to remain in the new structure.
This is important, as it can be inferred from Mr. Kelly’s article that the new building was entirely a post-fire rebuilding effort when, in reality, the new building was already in planning prior to the fire. In Mr. Osborn’s dissertation, he details the multiple planning and design efforts that were proposed, all which predated the fire and described a completely new Lexington Market to be erected between Paca and Greene streets. Prior to the fire, vendors were included in the plan to shift to the new structure. However, as Mr. Osborn recounts, “a ruling by Judge Sherbow in Circuit Court No. 2 in 1949 made it clear that the locations purchased by the market men no longer existed.” This meant that the city would regain full possession of Lexington Market with the amortization of the bonds issued by the Lexington Market Authority which meant “the way would be left open for the city to increase the rentals of the stalls.”
With this ruling, the newly-constructed Lexington Market no longer prioritized the interests of the original vendors. While Mr. Kelly’s article is a great opening to discussing the fire that took down Lexington Market in 1949, it fails to recognize that the new market was not constructed as a result of the fire but was instead accelerated because of the fire. Additionally, with the lack of insurance by vendors and the possession by the city, the fire —while no doubt tragic — comes across as a much more insidious event in Baltimore’s history.
As Lexington Market continues to change, the history of its structures and past vendors are imperative in understanding the long, complex narrative of this iconic place.