Conflicts of Interest: Lexington Market is not a shithole

City Paper

The Lexington Market is a shithole. At least that’s the impression one would get from the conversations surrounding the $26.7 million renovation plans announced by the city last week. The Sun’s story, by Natalie Sherman and Scott Dance, for instance bears the headline “For Lexington Market, a chance to be vibrant again” (the online headline is different). I’ve been railing against the use of the creative-class adjective “vibrant” and its even uglier substantive “vibrancy” for some time now, and this unfortunate headline—along with all of its biased presumptions—is the perfect example of just why this kind of terminology is so fraught. 

The headline of this reported story follows the arguments in Jacques Kelly’s more opinion-y Jan. 9 piece “Hopes for a return to glory for the Lexington Market.” Kelly praised some of the market’s charms, but noted that he “left the market feeling more than a little depressed.” 

The implication is clear—there is little glory in the market today. It’s interesting that they should use that particular word. This column’s recent musings on Lexington Market began: “The crowds at Lexington Market on Saturday are the glory of the world. Nowhere is there so much life.”

So what do people mean by “glory” or “vibrancy” if the current state of the Lexington Market on a busy afternoon does not count? On a recent Saturday, it took me a while to find a spot at Faidley’s raw bar as regulars and tourists passed through, slurping clams off the shell and scarfing crabcakes and drinking beers. A band played. The crowds were so thick it was hard to get through. Sure, there were people offering me drugs, but they didn’t accost me and force me to take them. Rather, I just kept walking and they left me alone. The only confrontation I’ve ever had at the market came from members of the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK) with their crazy costumes and Stars of David made out of heavy metal spikes and duct tape and their preaching that Jesus will come and enslave all white people. And it wasn’t trouble at all (they, hilariously, told me to start working out because I looked weak and when I was their slave, they would be hard masters). It is free speech and, really, free entertainment. And the other street preacher with the megaphone who tries to compete with them for the sake of our souls and our cities is equally vibrant. Unless you mean something other than “pulsing with life” when you say “vibrant,” there is no way that the current iteration of the Lexington Market is not “vibrant.” 

We’d all love to see some improvements at the market—and I’d really be psyched for evening and Sunday hours because there is nothing more lonesome and desolate than that stretch of Eutaw Street on a rainy Sunday—but it’s hard to read this study or the reporting on it and not come away with the sense, which is already so prevalent in the art world, that vibrancy really means whiteness, as if white skin vibrates at some special rate that makes everything great and makes money fall from the sky.

I thought a lot about what the creative-class people mean by vibrancy because I was helping moderate a panel at the Art-Part’heid conversation last weekend, organized by Sheila Gaskins, Michelle Gomez, and Mia Jones. The panel was pretty spectacular and, though I am deeply committed to trying to end the segregation of the arts scene—our State of the Arts issue called out our own role in this problem and tried to get the conversation going—I felt the best thing that I could do, as a white dude with institutional authority in the art scene, was listen. 

It was clear how painfully separate so many people—and particularly artists of color—feel from the arts funding system, to the point of wanting to avoid it altogether and seek alternate forms of funding. Gaskins used the spatial model of the old segregation when she said that funding (and grants and the like) is a building that many cannot enter. And clearly, funding leads to more funding—if you can pay a grant writer and a person to do PR, etc., your projects will get more attention and do better. 

As I thought about this, and so many other things, I kept thinking about what is hidden behind what people are saying about the Lexington Market and vibrancy (the panel itself was a shining example of what is best in our arts scene). It was hard not to be struck by how the kind of vibrancy at the Lexington Market is in many ways precisely the kind of vibrancy that the art scene would like. When the Bromo district sponsored the Light Up Lexington event a few months back and Brooks Long and the Mad Dog No Good were playing, the entire market, black, white, young, and old, were dancing and throwing dollars at the young, mixed-race band. It was beautiful to see young arts people mixing with the older clientele that might generally hang out at the market. (There were also weird things about it—bringing in fancy chefs to take over the kitchens of many of the other market businesses, for instance, could be a bit weird, rather than a full-on collaboration between two businesses).  

Maybe the conversation surrounding the market isn’t so much about race as it is about class. The new plans at the Lexington Market want to get rid of the poor people—or at least to ensure those people aren’t the majority. If the plans actually ensure that healthy food remains cheap, that could be great. But the markets, such as Reading Terminal in Philly and Eastern in Washington, D.C., aren’t cheap. And if you get rid of the poor people you get rid of the drug dealers—the wealthier the user, the less likely he will cop on the street—and the street preachers. There’s a reason Jesus preached his lessons to the poor and outcast.

That, then, is the definition of “vibrancy”—taxable, above-the-board economic activity.  And certainly the purpose of a market is to make money. But the city’s art scene is less about making money or selling art than it is about building community. The developers and the like hope that community will ultimately generate taxable, above-the-board economic activity. But at what cost? The Bromo Tower Arts District, which is hosting another Light Up Lexington event next month, sits at the center of these two worlds. As the newest arts district it faces a fascinating challenge, which, if played right, could be a great opportunity to further the kinds of conversations that happened at Art-Part’heid. 

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