The Battles of Lexington: City Paper goes deep inside and under Baltimore's oldest market

City Paper

A serpentine line of people waits to order one of Nancy Faidley Devine’s crab cakes at Faidley’s, the fish market her grandfather, John Faidley Sr., established at the Lexington Market in 1886. It snakes all the way down to the door that leads to the rest of the market. On one side of the throng is the raw bar—where Lou Fleming, a former arabber who has run it for the past 38 years, is already shucking oysters as fast as he can move. On the other side, the signs for raccoon and muskrat hang above the iced seafood, and Will Hahn, Nancy’s grandson, is working, hoping to sell the hundreds of pounds of fish he has ordered for Good Friday, later in the week.

But today’s crowd is not here to prepare for the holiday.  They are at the Lexington Market for “Lunch with the Elephants,” an old tradition that will end in 2017, due to pressure on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus regarding the use of pachyderms for human entertainment. 

“I’ve been here for 56 years and the elephants have been coming here the whole time,” says Bill Devine, who stands in a maroon shirt and a white and blue cap, a thick cigar clutched back between his molars, as he runs the credit card orders. He’s talking to Stacey Pack, the new director of the market who moved over from Belvedere Square last year. Though she’s a pescatarian, the deep purple of Faidley’s pickled beets, rather than a crabcake, are the centerpiece of her tray.

Lexington Market is too vast to comprehend. When you look at one thing, you are missing thousands of others. There are 97 vendors in the market: 18, such as the produce stalls and butcher shops, sell staple food; 12, including Konstant’s Nut House and Total Health, serve specialty food; 53, including half of Faidley’s and all the fried chicken places and the restaurant Memsahib, sell prepared food; and 14 specialize in nonfood items such as shea butter, vapes, cigarettes, or services such as shoe repair. But to the customer, the designations between them are often murky: Fresh fish is a staple; crab cakes are prepared; and if anything on Earth is a specialty item it is muskrat.

A majority of the customers have been coming to the market for more than 20 years. African-Americans make up a full 80 percent of the customers and a majority of those are middle-aged.

There’s the East Market, the West Market, the Arcade, the basement, the mezzanine, the parking garages, some Paca Street storefronts, and the catacombs below, which were discovered in the early 1950s but built a century earlier to cure meat. There is the Pfeiffer building, which the market owns, across the street, housing only the H&R Block office on the first floor. The upper floors are derelict.

Men take in a quick beer after work. (J.M. Giordano)

Then there is the Byzantine administration: the city that owns the properties that make up the market and the nonprofits, Lexington Market Inc. and the Baltimore Public Markets Corp, that run it. Below that there is waste disposal, housekeeping, security—a director and 20 officers—and the Baltimore Police—14 officers assigned to the market—and a number of administrators and managers. A bureaucracy to oversee pandemonium.

It is also a central hub for the city’s public transportation—MTA estimates that more than 25,000 people get off of the bus, subway, or light rail line within two blocks of the market every day.

Then there’s the neighborhood surrounding the market, where 122,222 people work, 40,971 live, and there are more than 8,000 hotel rooms. In the immediate vicinity the streets are filled with wig shops, nail salons, liquor stores, and the kind of catch-all places that you can buy a hookah, a dress, and a sequined hat that reads “Boss” on the crown all at once. And in addition to the money the market actually brings in ($4 million), there are all the shadow economies surrounding it: the drug dealers, the guys selling loosies, the addicts, the battered, beaten, and vagrant; there are the preachers, vying with one another to save your soul, and the criminals competing to corrupt it. You can get anything at the Lexington Market.

But a little farther south there is Everyman Theatre, Alewife, Forno, and the Hippodrome, all of which are in the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District, which was established in 2012 and sees Lexington Market as “a historic cultural space as much as it is a space for food,” as Priya Bhayana, the director of the Bromo District in which the market rests, puts it.

Further still is the University of Maryland Medical Center. The market has long pinned its hopes for transformation on this sector, but university involvement in the area around the market has not had as great an impact as all the planners and boosters have hoped. 

But all of that might change. A master plan commissioned by Lexington Market, Inc. for $485,000 from Market Ventures, Inc., a company that has consulted with other cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Portland, Maine, about their public markets, calls to “Transform Lexington Market.” The first phase of the plan offers a detailed—and fascinating—analysis of the current condition of the market and the second phase offers three possible versions of what such a transformation might look like.

Though nothing concrete will happen at the market for roughly two more years, the study managed to revive interest in the market for a moment and it ignited some public debate, for in reality, the plan is as much about rebranding the market as it is about rehabbing it.

I was outraged when I saw a headline in the Sun that read “For Lexington Market, a chance to be vibrant again.” I live within the neighborhood—the one-mile ring surrounding the market as designated by the master plan—and I spend a lot of time there and it is nothing if not vibrant. I wrote an angry column about it, but, before it was gone, I wanted to try, with whatever faculties I posses, to document a part of that true vibrancy. So, even though the market’s board still has to decide on a plan and the city has to come up with the money for the plan, I found myself, at every possible opportunity, loitering around Lexington Market.

And because the real tension has always been between the past and the future and between management and merchant and so, if I wanted to understand anything about the Lexington Market, I figured I could do worse than to start by trying to understand the perspectives of Bill Devine, an old-time merchant who can’t help but stand for tradition, and the new manager Stacey Pack, who is equally compelled to support change.

An early morning delivery to Herling's Grocery (J.M. Giordano)

 

Pack, a tall, bright-faced woman with long blond hair, took over as market manager nine months ago, when Robert Thomas, who had been assistant general manager for the last 17 years, was promoted to executive director of Lexington Market and Baltimore Public Markets Corporation, which oversees five of the city’s public markets. At the same time, Downtown Partnership’s Kirby Fowler came on as chair of the market’s board of directors. At the time, Fowler called Baltimore’s public markets “a way of life and culture for our citizens.” But that culture may be about to change.

Though the master plan—a massive study that contains an exhaustive, 211-page analysis of the market’s current condition and another, somewhat shorter, set of proposals for remodeling the market—was in place when Pack came into office, she didn’t wait for the proposed $26.7 million renovation to materialize or for the city—actually the board of Lexington Market, Inc., the nonprofit which runs the space, which is owned by the city—to decide between the three different options in the plan before she set out to change some things.

“Ms. Stacey changed everything around here for the better,” says Juan Torriente, the market’s housekeeping supervisor, who has been working here for 14 years, only four years fewer than he has been growing the long, long dreadlocks that he wears wrapped around his neck like a scarf that drapes down his chest toward his waist.

“The merchants, they’d never seen nobody do high dusting the way that she done,” he says, pointing up at the labyrinth of pipes and fans and poles of the archaic HVAC and lighting systems that crisscross the famous peaked roof of the market. “The trash out of the basement, all that bad smell, is out of the market. You can see the floor now, even half of the day it is still shining. It wasn’t like that. She changed it completely.”

Pack takes me down in the basement one afternoon, wearing tall Wellington boots and a dress. “That’s where the trash used to be collected,” she says. “A chute would bring it down here and then we’d haul it up at the end of the day, which made no sense.” 

Now, the trash is hauled directly outside and the basement—in the center of which there is a vast series of stalls for the merchants above to cook, prep, or store in—is clean and there are no signs of rats or roaches anywhere, though there were leaking pipes, which is part of the reason the market needs an overhaul.

“This is the reality of the whole reconstruction I’m dealing with. The walls are solid, but the pipes,” she says and sighs, pointing up to one leaking pipe amid all the hundreds of interconnecting old pipes that were fitted when this structure was constructed in 1950—and the merchants didn’t use grease traps.

There is some correlation, according to Trina Morris, who is employed by Recovery Network as a drug treatment outreach coordinator for Lexington Market, between some of the cosmetic improvements Pack has introduced and a reduction of the drug trade. “Every little thing Stacey has done, I swear I’ve noticed, from the bicycle rack out front to marking off the no-smoking area,” she says. “She gets it, the trash cans. These are simple things that says there’s a change coming. I just hope she gets to do more of it. It’s time for a physical upgrade. When people see a change taking place, they get it . . . It doesn’t have to be something major but something new enough that says this is a new environment and we have a new set of rules and guidelines that we’re going to abide by here and either you’re going to conform to it or you’re not.”

Many of the merchants also applaud Pack’s efforts to clean up the market, but a few have found her heavy-handed. One Korean merchant—more than 80 percent of the merchants are Korean—complained that the “white tall woman” came in and “picked on” her stall, running her fingers along the menu board, imperiously looking for dust. This merchant, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, says that, despite their numbers, the Korean merchants have no voice in the market. “We are not respected here, as individual merchants,” she says in Korean to Seola Lee, a City Paper intern. “The managing office acts like some kind of boss—really pushy, like about renewing the lease. They come in and ask us to clean up, change the sign, but if the renovation is actually happening, there’s no need to change it, is there? . . . And lease—they made it month-to-month. To kick us out. To make themselves legally justified to do so.”

Robert Thomas, who oversees all the city markets, says that some leases have gone month to month, but only when the merchants have failed to comply with the terms of the lease in some way—usually in terms of upkeep. “We prefer a year. That’s much easier.”

Because much of the barrier is linguistic, Steve Hyon, who runs Garden Produce vegetable stand, functions as a translator for the other Korean merchants. “I try to translate for them, or speak for them, whatever issues they may have,” Hyon says in English. “Usually they do come to me and I address to Stacey or whoever it needs to be.”

Hyon agrees that the Korean merchants don’t have the say or power to match their numbers. “We have more than 80 percent of merchants are Korean, but the benefit we get from the market is miniscule,” he says, standing off to the side as a woman, a close family friend and employee, straightens the display of oranges on the stand. 

He says all of the Koreans in the market are hard workers and don’t like to work for other people. He says he works between 80 and 120 hours per week, yet he feels like times are tough.  “Right now, truly it’s not making [it]. But, hey, I haven’t lost hope. I’m going to give my best shot and see what happens . . . I’m not a failure. I don’t easily give up. Unless I see the end results, until then I’ll do it. That motivates me to come out from early in the morning until late.”

Joshua Cho, from Harbor Fish Market, also acts as a translator for other Korean merchants. “Whenever they have issues with the managing office, they come to me. I face them, deal with them, discuss about their issues, trying to make all go unnoticed,” he says. “And if I were to help [other Korean merchants] out, I’d do so without making a fuss—my job is to cover up troubles and let them go unnoticed by the market.”

In this position, he is a bit more sympathetic toward management. “Stacey, the new manager . . . she got a strong will, a person with initiative and drive. People who get picked on often by her would find her annoying, but I like her. We need someone like her.”

And though he is cautiously optimistic about the future, he still has doubts. “The office wants to repel the lower middle class and attract the upper middle class instead as customers, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen,” he says. “Because after years of doing my business here, I see customers’ spending patterns. Lots of people here are cared by social welfare—they use food stamps to buy stuff.”

The market has always been populated by immigrants. Bill Devine has been around long enough to remember when the market stalls were primarily run by Jews, Italians, and Greeks. 

Kay's Produce in the West market (J.M. Giordano)

Devine and his wife Nancy have seen enough changes, and enough failed projects, to be skeptical of any plans. They met almost 60 years ago on a blind date when Bill was in the Navy and decided to get married two weeks later; he remained in the navy for six years, until his father-in-law, John Faidley Jr., said the market was expanding and asked Bill to come join him in expanding Faidley’s. And they kept expanding, almost every year for a while. “It was more an evolution than a revolution,” he says.

As for the master plan: “They don’t have that kind of money,” Devine says. “They ain’t got that kind of money. There’s no way.”

One of the required changes involves flattening the sloped floor that begins in Faidley’s up at Paca Street and slopes all the way down to Eutaw—it was once intended to allow the fish mongers to spray out their stalls at the end of the day, but does not comply with the Americans with Disabilties Act.

“The shoe man just came over and I was talking to him,” Devine says of Alex Kofman, who runs Lexington Market Shoe Repair.  “And he was worrying about what he is going to do and I said it’s too early to worry. The plans aren’t done yet. What are they going to do, put 170 merchants out of business? They can’t do that.” 

Devine is sitting at his desk in a small office up above his storage space. “I was paying rent on that space, so I was damn well gonna use it,” he says. We just climbed a ladder to get up there and he is showing the stacks of green notebooks, in which he has been keeping almanac-like notes on everything from world events to the weather—anything that can help him know how to order the highly perishable seafood by which he makes his living. 

“Putting down what’s important, elephants, Good Friday, Easter weekend,” he says, reading, as if a liturgy. “Generally I only record adverse weather and not good weather.” He points to two squares in the book. “Rain, rain. All affects how to buy. I probably got records back for 30 or 40 years if I wanted to go into them. There’s November 2010,” he says, settling on a random page. “‘Rain, dead. Dead a.m. Up after 3. Dead.’ It all depends on what money comes into the city. Here’s Artscape. Here’s two conventions that helped us: The firemen were in town and Baltimore’s Best was announced. I have one in here on [Princess] Di’s funeral, because that day, nobody showed up in Baltimore, they all stayed home and watched Di getting buried.” 

Perhaps this year, he will add the mark “reporter hangs around,” because I am doing my best to affect business, eating crab cakes, oysters, clams, and even shad roe, which I bought over in the fish market side of Faidley’s from Will Hahn, one of the three sons of Damye, the daughter of Bill and Nancy, who is set to take over the store one day. I brought the roe, wrapped in paper, to Nancy behind the counter on the other side of the room. She quit making her crab cakes and parboiled it and then cooked it with scallions in white wine. It was an intense, fishy, salty flavor. I thought it might be grit-like caviar-ish fish eggs, but instead it was more like a fish placenta, like fish liver if such a thing existed. I ate it with two people from the arts community, Katie Bachler of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Priya Bhayana from the Bromo District. We all wanted to like it, just like I wanted to like the muskrat I’ve bought the last few years from Faidley’s to cook. In both cases, alas, I like the idea of the food better than the food, but I’ll keep trying.

And then there are the crab cakes, which Nancy makes, hundreds and hundreds of them, by hand. “I form them, I don’t need to measure anything. When you do it for 20 years. I can feel when it’s a little much or not enough because I been doing it every day for 20 years, honey.”

She is helped by Viola Brooks, the 92-year-old woman with the smile of a young girl, who has been breaking up the crackers for Nancy’s crab cakes for decades—she started working here when she was forced to retire from a five and dime when she turned 65. That was almost 30 years ago and she ran the raw bar until it was too hard on her hands, which today are defined by their long and bony fingers.

Brooks remembers the market when she was a child. “I done seen so much,” she says. “So much going on. Everybody got along, where we lived was all Jews and Italians and Greeks. After my parents died, they tore up the neighborhood. Rebuild it, I say rebuild. This market wasn’t nothing but Jews and Greeks and Italians. There were a lot of vegetables and meat stands. But it’s not like that now. It will never be like when I came along. Stuff was fresher too. Everything was better.”

Like Brooks, many of the market’s customers have been coming for decades. Phase 1 of the Transform Lexington Market report notes that more than 60 percent have been coming to the market for more than 20 years. More than 80 percent of these customers are African-American and are roughly divided between male and female (the report notes that most markets serve more female than male customers, while Lexington Market’s customer base is actually 52 percent male). Most of the customers come from within the eight ZIP Codes surrounding the market and spend an average of $19.89.

Like a majority of the customers interviewed for the master plan, Ted Hayes, who is standing in the arcade drinking beer with his brother, comes for the sociability, the music, and a little bit of shopping. “We love it,” he says. “We coming here for 40 years. The camaraderie of the people, togetherness. And the jazz. I hope they don’t stop that. That’s why we come here. Along with good food, we get a cold beer. I come on the weekend. Usually when I come down and before I leave today I’ll go over there and buy me some fish and pack it on ice and take it on home with me,” he says. “But we just come down and eat breakfast. We like that, man.”

There are some changes he looks forward to. “You know that crowd outside, I wish they’d get rid of that. Give it a bad look. I saw [‘The High Wire,’ the documentary about heroin that focused in part on Lexington Market] on the National Geographic Channel one day . . . and I didn’t know that they knew everything that they knew about what goes on down here. Man, if they could get rid of that and make it so everybody can come! A lot of the white people don’t come because it doesn’t look good out there, it doesn’t feel safe, I’m gon’ tell it like it is. Now I hope when they remodel I hope a lot of changes come about and that’s one of them.”

But Hayes has his reservations: “The breakfast spots, I hope they keep ’em. I know a lot of people that work downtown that they live by these breakfasts in here,” he says. “I hear they gon’ get rid of that too.”

In the weeks I’ve spent lurking around the market, I’ve started to live by the breakfasts too. At $1.65, the “Super Sandwich,” with fried egg and crispy bacon, at the Omlet Sideshow is a great bargain—add grits and a coffee and it’s a perfect breakfast, though not a whole lot better than its competition at Seeds. And actually Sandwich King has the best bacon in town; there is something superbly crisp about it so that it crumbles into smoky goodness in your mouth even at 2 p.m. But as good as those breakfasts are, most everyone I talked to said it would be great to have more variety—breakfast burritos, such as the ones I had at the Milwaukee Public Market, or bagels with lox, which are on Mary Mervis’ menu, but when I tried to order one from Elliot Bodner, he said, “We don’t have those. You’ve seen my customers. They don’t have enough teeth to eat a bagel.”

East Market layout

 

Colonel John Eager Howard gave the land for Lexington Market to the city in 1782, though construction on the market itself didn’t begin until 1803, with an original building on Green Street. It was originally called Howard’s Hill Market but was dubbed Lexington Market when it first expanded in 1818. In 1826, a second building was erected and in 1856 a third. But the street stalls, for which merchants paid ground rent, were the heart of the market and battles over who controlled them—management or vendors—would define the market for the next 100 years.

In the early 20th century, the market was open Tuesdays, Fridays, and until midnight on Saturdays. There were inns for farmers—and their horses—so they could stay late. As cars began to fill the city, they started problems with the market.

By 1925, we see headlines asking, “Will New Plans Kill Old Market’s Romance.” In 1940, after great debate, the West Market was demolished and a bill was passed banning the street vendors on Eutaw and Lexington streets to make way for the increase in cars driving downtown. But outdoor vendors remained central to the market. In 1944 The Sun ran a headline “Mayor Inspects Lexington Market; Tells Police To ‘Clean It Up . . . Fast.’”

In 1946, when a protracted battle led to the demise of many of the street stalls, Irwin G. Courtney, then the head of the Lexington Market Dealers Association, wrote to Mayor Theodore McKeldin in protest. “It is a matter of record that no new, enclosed dandified market has been a financial success.” That year, around 200 vendors and stall operators called “market men” then protested the transfer to the new location, filling up the Board of Estimates office, wearing their white market smocks.

According to Courtney’s letter, “many of these schemes” for the market “have been garbed in virtuous language and camouflaged by the pious pretense of civic virtue, neighborhood improvements and sanitary necessity.” And yet, he noted that Baltimoreans were “both traditionalists and full of sentiment” and they would stick by their old market.

By the end of 1946, that deal was approved and despite Courtney’s opposition to the plans, Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. appointed him to head Lexington Market the next year,  positioning him with management instead of the stall-owners he had championed.

The battles over the ownership of stalls, initially distributed by lottery, continued. Then the market burned on March 25, 1949. It was a Friday morning and the stalls had been stocked for the weekend. The damage was estimated at $5 million. They built a temporary Quonset hut with 180 stalls to house the vendors.

Two years later, Mayor D’Alesandro said, “Today we are witnessing the formal dedication of a bigger and better Lexington Market, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of the old landmark that added so much to the charm of Baltimore in a bygone era when life moved at a leisurely pace and good living and hospitality were an essential part of our existence. We shall retain our hospitality, but the tempo has stepped up.”

Finally, in June 1952, just two months after the opening of what Sun reporter Milton T. Chambers described as the “handsome new brick-and-steel Lexington Market,” the street stalls were removed from the market. “Police Knock Down, Remove Lexington Market Stalls,” the paper read.

Then in 1956: “Lexington Market Looks to Future Confidently,” the Baltimore American wrote. It got air conditioning in 1958, when they were already looking back, yet again, at the good old days. 

In 1975, Devine Seafood, which Bill Devine’s nephews opened up to compete with him, was kicked out for overcharging customers. “Every family can write their own ‘Peyton Place,’” Bill Devine says. “And that was a chapter in mine. They evicted them from the market, but they just gave it to another brother.”

In 1978, “Market suffers from subway woes.”

That year, Tony Tamberino, a butcher, told reporter Terry Rubenstein “the market is not really convenient for anyone. Most people I think drive here. I don’t want it to turn into a tourist trap and a lunch room. We need shoppers.” Tamberino was worried about the Inner Harbor taking business away. One story noted “Downtown’s colorful culinary oasis sorely in need of major face lifting” that same year.

Two years later, 1980, a group of maintenance workers went on strike. Two years after that, the arcade, which is set to be replaced by an outdoor farmers market area in the new plans, opened. There was another big controversy over then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer’s plans for a 30-foot-tall “Great Sound and Sight Kiosk,” as the $300,000 centerpiece for the market was dubiously dubbed.

And so it goes.

In 2001, there were more makeover plans in a familiar-sounding attempt to “widen the appeal and audience of the market.” In 2012, the mayor introduced a healthy foods plan. In 2013, street parking was prohibited to disrupt drug deals but also disrupted food sales, and in 2014, the new master plan was released.

The plan surveyed more than 450 visitors and 27 merchants at the market, and engaged in an exhaustive study of the finances and physical facilities. Financially, Lexington Market is in better shape than it is physically. In June 2013, the market reported its assets at “$7.15 million, including $6.75 million in cash and investments. Current liabilities are listed at $1.02 million. Current assets are high compared to other public markets and provide an important reserve for operating losses or capital investment.”

The revenue that year was more than $4 million, with a majority of that coming from merchant rent, though the nonprofit also holds investments, is subsidized by the city, and receives fees from the ATM—however, Lexington Market made only $8,413 from the ATM in 2013, whereas Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia made $75,000 of ATM fees during the same period.

The physical structure is the greatest challenge faced by the market, which spends over a million dollars a year in utilities.

There are three different possible plans in play. In the first plan, merchants would be temporarily relocated to a temporary building on the parking lot or within the garage, while the East Market building is rebuilt.

This plan is based on the model of Washington, D.C.’s Eastern Market, which was built in the 1800s and burned in 2007, forcing the vendors into a temporary home while it was rebuilt. The other prominent model for the new Lexington Market is Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

The second plan is to rebuild the East Market in stages, closing off sections at a time, and the third option involves building a new building on the West Market block, so that the vendors could remain in the East Market until the construction is complete.

All three proposals call for eventually destroying the arcade and replacing it with a covered farmers market shed like the one at Eastern Market in Washington. And, of course, the merchants have their own ideas.

“Tear down the arcade and the parking lot, make brand-new market and make this parking lot. That way we stay here and just move over here,” says Mike Houvardas, behind the counter at Berger’s Bakery, which he has run with his wife since he bought it from his cousin in 1974, when he came from Greece. His vision is close to the third option.

“Make the arcade and the parking lot the market,” he reiterates.

“You don’t lose everything,” his wife Fotini, who is from the same village, adds, sidling up behind him. “In moving you lose customers.”

“We have some experience, so many years in here,” he says. “Ask me what I feel about it. They showed to us the plan. ‘This is how it’s going to look.’”

“‘We’re gonna do that,’” she says. “Then they say ‘what you think?’ Some of these people don’t know if they gonna be here.”

Both of the Houvardases think the city should make a big deal out of the remodeling and re-opening, recalling the day the ill-fated arcade opened.  “I remember the time the arcade opened it was a Sunday. If you see the people that waited outside for the market to open at 12 o’clock. The aisles were so full you couldn’t move,” Mike says.

Now the market is closed on Sundays, despite studies that show it is the most popular shopping day. But at noon on a recent Saturday, it’s impossible to keep track of everything happening in the arcade, even watching from the mezzanine up above. In the corner of the corral area with standing tables in the center of the arcade, bathed in natural sunlight coming through the skylights, beneath a hanging American flag, six well-dressed middle-aged African-American women occupy a table as a woman in an off-white pantsuit gestures and talks. Behind them stand several small groups of men, also middle-aged, African-American, drinking beer. The Market Ventures study notes that one-third of the market’s total patrons are between 50 and 59—and nearly 70 percent are between 40 and 69.

It is a palace of palaver. Everywhere in the arcade, people bullshit, joke, lie, show off, brag, and curse. A man in all white slaps another guy wearing a red shirt and a red hat on the back with a joke. None of the tables have chairs, which creates a certain flow. Above it all is the stained-glass bull, the traditional symbol of the market, with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. I sit and stare and stare.

Lexington Market on a Saturday is a center of fashion, a place to see and be seen. A young girl with pink braids sticking up on top of her head spills a blue sno-ball on the counter; a guy in pink shirt, fedora, suspenders, and wayfarers slides along; another dude in all khaki but for a black jacket with red collar and black beret; a woman with no legs in a wheelchair in a shirt with multicolored vertical stripes and a pink hat; an African-American woman with a hippie headband, big glasses, and bigger earrings; bleached hair, dyed hair, frizzy hair, fried hair, hair of every sort shape and color. Hats of every description: floppy, fisherman, fedora, baseball—even a few Yankees ones.

Bill Devine of Faidleys during a lunch rush (J.M. Giordano)

 

A couple days later, I ask Stacey Pack to set me up with a desk so I can write at the market. Initially, we were going to install it on the raised cement plank of the empty Han’s Produce stall, beside Berger’s Bakery, but the desk there created a place for people to sit, and as Bill Devine says, if you give people a place to sit, they’ll never leave. That’s why his restaurant does not have chairs, and part of why Faidley’s is able to sell more than 1,000 crab cakes per week.

I was never able to use the desk at the empty Han’s stall, but Pack mentioned, in an offhand way, that there are conference rooms on the mezzanine with big sliding windows that look out over the market. She and Juan Torriente, the housekeeping supervisor, set me up there and I have written most of this story sitting in the room staring down at the motion, the poetic enjambment of bodies, the jostling life.

From this vantage, it is easier to gauge the motion, as the narrow aisles between the stalls also tends to keep people moving. The new plan will reduce the number of vendors in order to create more room in the aisles. Instead of 97 vendors, the plan calls for 71, a fact that breeds dread and uncertainty among the merchants.

“Who’s going to stay and who’s going to go?” Mike Houvardas asks.

“They plan to diversify the types of vendors in the market—I understand,” Young Yup Hwang, who owns Super Fried Chicken, says, in Korean. “Diversification would be a good thing. But in that case, it means people [some merchants] here simply must leave. So they call fill up the space with new vendors . . . The plan is hardly plausible, especially if they were to pull it out on such a large scale. And if they were to ultimately complete it, I wouldn’t want to come back. The business is slow, low profit, hard work, I kinda feel that I just wanna close up the business. I think lots of Korean merchants here agree with me . . .  Because of the renovation I can’t sell the vendor and leave, because no one wants to buy it. Who would want to come here, they’ll be kicked out soon anyway. And the rumor has been spreading faster outside the market . . . All those rumors.”

Others are more optimistic. Chef Von’s is a new stall about to open soon. “What I’m doing is making change down here,” says Von Key, the owner, a bright faced and enthusiastic African-American man. “Right along with the market, everything is changing in the downtown area. I’m bringing healthy, healthy food down here. I’m promoting health all the way around and the way this is growing, I’m looking at everybody. All this is gonna change down here.”

Everyone I spoke to seemed to agree that the food could use diversification. Lynette Tarrant, who owns Lynn’s Leather and Hand-Painted Items, a stall in the passageway between the East Market and the arcade, has been coming to the market for decades. “I’m really, really, really looking forward to some of the changes I’ve been hearing about. And one I have seen already is Light up Lexington,” a quarterly event,which keeps the market open late and brings in live music and high-end chefs, such as Phil Han from Dooby’s, to collaborate with the local merchants. “I would really like to see more diversity in the foods, I would like more different foods,” especially organic produce.

“You can’t get the produce like we want,” says Lynette’s mother Grace, sitting off to the side. “Like, I like asparagus. Can’t get squash. Cause they really think we don’t eat like that.”

When you look down on Herlings Grocery from the mezzanine above, it fulfills the stereotype of a “ghetto” grocery, revealing mainly fluorescent-lit sweets and junk food, with  lines of neon colored knock-off sodas shimmering on the top shelf. I have bought grits there and toilet paper and bread and beer and frozen vegetables (they have okra).

While working on this story, I have done most of my shopping at the market and I have sorely missed fresh herbs—parsley is as good as it gets—but the avocados are better than at most groceries, as are the oranges and other citrus. The kimchi—the pale pickled-cabbage pieces float atop the deep red juice in plastic tubs in a glass behind the counter of Hanako in the arcade, beneath the sushi—is restoratively delicious. People are eating everything, everywhere. And yet, there are so many repetitions, or what the suits would call redundancies, that even after coming here nearly every day for the past several weeks, it is easy to get lost among the various breakfast, sandwich, and fried chicken stalls. 

 

Market lore provides endless opportunities for exploration. In the early 1950s, when the current market was under construction, workers discovered “catacombs,” as the papers called them, beneath what is now the parking garage on Paca Street. “A catacomb-like series of vaults, with connecting tunnels, has been discovered beneath the site of the new Lexington Market,” The Sun reported of the vaults, built to cure pork about a century earlier. I asked Robert Thomas and Pack if I could go down there. Pack had never been there herself—and didn’t seem to know of their existence. She wanted to see the caverns beneath the parking garage too.

We met Derrick Bowie, maintenance supervisor, and Pack in her office. They had already gone down to check it out and Pack had a bit of an incident, starting to panic in the old abandoned restaurant, which, Bowie says, closed in 2003, that sits above the catacombs.

“This is the part that really freaked me out,” Pack says, noting the strips of metal and broken glass on the floor of the restaurant, which was first called Soul Shack and then Tubbs before it closed in the early aughts.

“This was a thriving business at one time.” A thriving, underground business. There are no windows. There is a stage, or bandstand, with a wheel of colors behind it, like a disco Rising Sun.

“There could be a haunted band on the stage,” Bowie says as his light plays across the ages of dust and neglect.

“Part of the master plan is to figure out what to do with this side of the market,” Pack says of the West Market above us. Thomas, her boss, had told me when I first mentioned the catacombs that he could imagine dance parties down there.

“I mean the West Market is very underutilized and it’s really interesting because they built this parking deck and all of this was built in the ’50s and it was all centered around this parking lot,” Pack says. “Derrick, did they used to have a service station in the garage?”

“They had a whole service station and a TV repair.”

“So it’s a very unique space—someone who wants a restaurant with no windows,” Pack says.

We pass through the back, flashlight beam leading the way and casting shadows, and descend another set of stairs until we reach the mysterious catacombs, with their high arched ceilings. Bowie shines his light up on the curved ceiling and we see a scribbled  face and “1895.” There is a manhole at another section. It is dry and cool and the air is constricted and stale. There is a page from City Paper’s Best of Baltimore issue from 1989 on the floor.

Bowie has a cool, detached demeanor. Victory motorcycles are his passion in life. His brothers like Harleys, the most famous American-made bike, but Bowie wanted to be different. He loved Victories, which were also American made, and rides one to work, almost every day, except in the worst weather. His wife doesn’t like him to ride, but it is what he loves, so she accepts it.

He has worked in the market for 30 years. He says he’s been smart with money and that he has enough to retire, but he likes working here and wants to see it out, even if he is only guardedly optimistic.

“Downtown has changed, it’s not a mega shopping district that it once was when the major department stores had stores, Hutzlers, when all of them left downtown. It’s not even the same no more. Trying to build back those glory days. Hopefully Stacey can get it done.”

“Oh stop,” she says. But, at some level, it is up to her.

“When I started here, they had a trainingship program for Carver Vo-Tech and they sent me down here to get my on the job training,” he says. “Never looked back. Started working after school for three hours a day. Stayed. They kept me on. Just kept going, kept going.”

“You kept this place going,” Pack says. “Don’t be so modest.”

“It’s a challenge trying to maintain that plumbing,” he says a few moments later. “It’s encased in concrete. You have to dig it out and try to reroute. It’s hard to keep a building made in 1950, to accommodate all the new electrical stuff is kind of hard.”

A Miller sign advertises 50-cent beers in a cavern below a restaurant beneath a parking garage. It feels like something from a sci-fi movie. We go back up the flight up steps and into the abandoned Tubbs. We notice old signs from those days hang on the wall, and 2003, when it closed, seems so long ago. “Superman Ladies Night: For Your Eyes Only Ladies.” “Hot Thighs Contest.” “Three Minute Limit” above the bay where a pay phone once was.

There are still tables, dishes, other debris. We walk back into the garage and ascend into the West Market, which feels like the sad and battered sibling to the gigantic East Market. Many people come to the market for years without ever even going in it.  There are fewer vendors, fewer patrons, fewer options.

The West Market will not likely survive any iteration of the master plan.

“The new plan, I looked at them, I read the report,” Bowie says. “It’s good. I think it will work. They need to try to revitalize the whole downtown district. It’s going to be a challenge.”

He pauses.

“I been here 37 years and downtown as a whole is going down.” We step outside.

 

Paca street divides the two market buildings. Hacks occupy the curb and old men stand around smoking. It is even keeled, always a bit subdued. Eutaw Street, on the other end of the market, is bipolar, wigging out with its wig shops and nail parlors and bodegas. When they are closed, the streets are empty and depressed; there is little lonelier than a drizzly cold Sunday on Eutaw Street in front of Lexington Market. But when the market and the shops are open and the weather is fine, Eutaw Street is manic, overflowing with people jostling, hustling, joshing, cussing, and selling almost anything as cars try to pass and songs crisscross and collide with horns and shouts and murmurs.

“Jesus died and rose again on the third day,” says Adrian Ferrell, the street preacher who has been coming down to the market to preach for the last seven years, into a megaphone. His cadence rolls much like that of a merchant, a passing arabber. He is selling salvation. “And he say ‘Ain’t no man can take my life! I lay it down on the line and take it back up in three days’ and many of you your lives are being destroyed because you’re afraid to die daily on the cross.’”

Among the hundreds of people ignoring the preacher, sometimes one is enthused and begins to clap or yell “yes” or “hallelujah.” Other times, such as right now, he is taunted, cursed, and spit upon. A young man yells something unintelligible, but it contained the word “fuck.”

“You want to stay in darkness so bad that you don’t want to recognize how we let profanity, how profanity, how we can’t even express ourselves without using profanity.”

Sirens blast over the megaphone as a police car crosses Saratoga.

On another day, he says, “I pray for the Israelites for they do not know.” He’s not talking about the Middle East, but rather the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge (ISUPK), who are standing across the street seven deep in their heavy-metal sci-fi get-up that distinguishes them from the other Black Israelites who wear red and white—there was a schism in 2000 when Jesus did not come back and enslave all the white people. One of them is preaching. “Nobody wants to be poor,” he says. Another man on the stage beside him, both standing behind graphic photos of abortion, holds a Bible from which he will be asked to read aloud. He talks about the white men and the Chinese in the market keeping the black men down.

“Loose ones,” a man says.

“Don’t nobody wants to be poor, man,” the  ISUPK guys repeats into a microphone, drowning out Ferrell across the street. Half a dozen other guys surround him, like guards. “I mean that’s crazy.”

“Bars, got the big orange footballs,” a man says.

“Nobody wants to be poor . . .” 

One guy, leaning against a doorway, mutters “loose ones, loose ones,” as I pass by, tempting the ex-smoker in me who never craves a cigarette as bad as on the first warm spring days or the first crisp cool days of fall. Today is bright and sunny and people throng the streets. The stylishly elderly umbrella salesman on the corner doesn’t do much business. It is the day after Opening Day and the O’s play again, barely a half-mile to the south. The guy with loose cigarettes makes $3.50 per pack. “You can’t live on it.” But, he says, as a black man who saw the Eric Garner tape, he knows that you can die for it. 

“Weed, weed,” another guy with dreads and a Redskins cap says as I walk by. I look. “Hey man, you want some weed?”

Usually, the dealers don’t pursue so much—their offers float like passing murmurs from a dream. So I walk back and start talking with him. “It’s more somewhere to hang,” he says of selling drugs at the market. “Let me tell you this, the police take you out of the neighborhood. In the neighborhoods, they ended up tearing down the buildings and it got to the point where you couldn’t just sit on your steps, without the police doing that—know mean?—so I think more to shopping areas, where tourists be.”

I’d heard that the dealers at Lexington Market were the worst dealers in town because they were the ones who had been driven out of their own neighborhoods as a sort of quality control. “The neighborhood rejects,” Trina Morris, the drug outreach coordinator, says when I ran the theory, which she had also heard but couldn’t confirm, by her. But this weed dealer is saying that it is the larger forces of development.

Ferrell, the street preacher, agrees. “I been down here for the last seven years, consistent. Cause I saw there was a great need of being down here, all the violence that was happening, starting to bring it down right here to the marketplace because they closed down the projects, because this was the nearest place they could come from the projects to bring their dope here to the market so all the drug activity that came from Lexington Terrace, the projects that they done shut done made this the open foundation of an open drug-market trade.”

Though the master plan says that patrons of the Lexington Market come, primarily, from the eight ZIP codes surrounding the market, Morris says the drug customers come much farther. “They are from Dundalk, they are from Glen Burnie, we’ve had people from Pennsylvania, people who have told us that they purposefully come here because they were told if they are out of what they need, even if prescribed by a doctor, this is the place to come, this is the one-stop hub to come get whatever you need.”

She has worked with more than 700 people in the last four years. “And that’s unique numbers, not duplicated numbers, which would be much higher,” she says, because of relapse.

“The worst is the pill poppers,” Juan Torriente, the housekeeping supervisor, says. “We have a lot of people live in those condominiums, but when they see this outside, no one in their right mind would come with kids because they don’t want their kids to see that. Sometimes they arrest them but then they right back, right back.”

Viola Brooks, the 92-year-old who uses a little marble to break up the saltines for the filler of Nancy Faidley’s crab cakes, doesn’t feel as safe as she once did. “I used to come down, you could walk straight down here, but now you can hardly come out the street,” she says.

The drugs outside the market don’t seem particularly dangerous, however. The drug dealers don’t push themselves on you and the users are largely passive, performing what some have referred to as the “Lexington lean.”

Still, security is one of the biggest problems in the market, costing $900, 000 per year. A common complaint is that new guards are quickly befriended by patrons—and then stop enforcing the rules.

I am standing at one of the tables with a $3 Boh from Italian Stallion and a $3.50 chicken breast, smothered in hot sauce, from Park’s Fried Chicken. It is an insanely juicy bird, with an extraordinarily crisp skin. The weed dealer, wearing a Redskins cap, with long stringy dreads and crooked teeth, is standing inside by Park’s Hamburger in the arcade, talking to a woman with a cast on her leg. A tall security guy with a trim mustache walks up. He hugs the weed dealer, leaning in as they pat each other’s back. He walks off. A minute later, the guard comes back with two other guards. They are laughing as they walk toward the Eutaw Street entrance. The dealer walks along, almost up to them, but then hesitates, turns back, is lost in the crowd.

Other people complain that the security is too rough. Two addicts are standing in the bathroom, one tottering, unable to hook his belt. The other one washes his face at the sink. “Man, they have a bad day, man and don’t want to be here and want to take it out on all us,” says the tottering man, his belt in his hand. “They do like that, but then they talk to us about respecting everybody.” He shakes his head.

By most accounts Perry Standfield, a retired Baltimore city police lieutenant in the Western District, who came on as the head of security 14 months ago, has made improvements. He’s walking around the market like a high school vice principal. “No-smoking area folks, remember that,” he says. “Excuse me,” pointing to the blue lines that mark off the 25 feet from the entrances where one cannot smoke. 

“When I first came in, that was one of the biggest problems that everybody talked about,” he says. “Just seeing people standing in the doorways. My boss was saying ‘access, you have to keep the doorways open.’ There are like five methadone clinics in the area . .  They have a policy that if we catch any of their people down here selling the bottles or bars or methadone, they stopped them. They’ll throw them off. They’ll suspend them.”

The market, he says, will bar people for up to five years. We’ve been walking around the market, but he takes me up to the security office, which is bigger than I suspect, with two rooms, several desks, computers, and screens. Everything—or as much as possible—is monitored in the market. It looks like a police station on TV. There are gang tags to watch out for on the walls, but the most overwhelming feature of the security office is a wall full of pictures of people who have been banned from the market—like  a souped-up version of one of those suspect boards from “The Wire.” There are hundreds and hundreds of pictures. Standfield shows me some duplicates, a dateline of market misdeeds going back more than a decade now: serial banishment.

Jason Jones* was 13 years old, aggressive panhandling, would come in the East Market and the vendors would run him out. But one of the sergeants here, Sgt. Ross, talked to his father who told him he had lost his mom. After he lost his mom, he went in a totally different direction,” Standfield recalls sadly.

“In the security office, we have what’s called the Wall of Shame,” says Morris, who worked in methadone clinics before beginning her drug treatment work at the market. “So imagine my first week working, I’m looking on the wall and I’m like this is my client, that was my client. So it’s been going on longer than I realized.”

Morris praises Standfield, especially his consistency in managing the customers and his own staff. Wayne Early, the Baltimore City residential community relations officer, helps out a lot. He has been patrolling this area for the past 23 years and is about to retire to a hog farm in Woodstock. He’ll miss the market. “A lot of people put this market down, but the reality is, it’s the market . . . In five and a half months I retire but I do pray and I do hope that they’ll see the master plan come because I would love to come back up here. . . . This is the world-famous market. It’s got your variety of foods, diversity of people. You got everything. Everything is right here in this market right now. You can’t go anywhere and get the variety of food and the variety of people.”

He’s a seen a lot and is happy with the way it is going in terms of policing the market. “One thing I can say about the commissioner that I really do like, he is hitting this at every angle. Plain clothes, uniform, drug counseling.”

Early talks to people as we walk, calling them, and me, brother, in his raspy voice. As we’re walking down the steps Elliot Bodner, from Mary Mervis, is walking up.

“Elliot, how you doing sir?” Early asks.

“Don’t talk to him,”Bodner says of me. “Whatever you say he’ll—”

“You know what he did say? ‘Mary Mervis has the best food.’ That’s what he said.”

“He’ll take it out of context.”

“We’re good, brother. It’s good seeing you brother.”

Bodner has been jokingly cantankerous all along, at one point taking my recorder from my hand in order to make sure it was off as he talked about the problems of the market. Like so many others, he ended up here accidentally, answering an ad in the paper 13 years ago and then buying the deli with the famous shrimp salad on rye bread, which is still spectacular, getting just the right balance of seafood, mayo, and rye flavor. And the cold cuts for the other sandwiches are piled so high it’s hard to get your mouth around one of them.

Next to Mary Mervis, which is almost a hundred years old, there is Konstant’s, which Larry Brenner bought from Nick Konstant, whose family had owned it for three generations, in 2008, just before the economy collapsed, and opened a barbecue restaurant (he named it Paul’s after a former employee of Konstant’s) to add to the peanuts, candy, and hot dogs and great coffee he already sells. The candy shop carries  the Mary Sue eggs. My wife has wanted them the past few Easters and I’ve failed to get them. When they sell out, they are gone. This year she got them.

I stand there, elbows on the counter, eating a kosher hot dog, a big paper cup of jumbo coffee off to the side, as people jostle up to order. A mom buys her sulky teenage son, who towers over her but has boyish-looking tears in his eyes, a dog. Another guy buys one for a friend down on his luck. Even though it is a weekday, there’s a good crowd at the counter. “Sauerkraut and chilli,” the buyer says.

“No sauerkraut,” the hungry friend corrects. “Just chili.”

 

The sound of the market changes as it starts to get late. More forlorn clanging as serving spoons and pans are thrown into sinks and trays placed on shelves, as ice is emptied, and food packed up. Bags rustle against one another with a ghostly rustling. Garbage is collected. Brooms brush across the terrazzo floor and the constant swirl and murmur of the multitude starts to thin.

Except in Faidley’s, where the post-O’s-game crowd is lively, a festive din drowning out the work in the rest of the market. “Any more crab cakes?” a guy in a Royals hat asks.

“Five more,” Damye Hahn, the daughter of Nancy and Bill Devine, the great-granddaughter of John Faidley, says. She is born into this; her son Will cleans up behind the fish counter across the room. “Fryer’s off. No onion rings. Slaw. Hot fries,” she says.

“Just a crab cake,” the guy says.

“One crab cake?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says.

She hollers out the order and turns to me. “And they say the market’s not vital,” she says. ν

Derrick Bowie, the head of maintenance, in the catacombs (J.M. Giordano)

* Name has been changed


Additional reporting by Seola Lee.
Go to citypaper.com/lexington to see historical photos and contemporary photos and video of the market.

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