It was reassuring to see some vintage favorites open for business at the latest incarnation of downtown Baltimore’s Lexington Market. The cobbler’s stand is open and there’s a hot dog vendor with frankfurters twirling on a grill.
Physically, the market, which had a soft opening a few weeks ago, is a very different building from the utilitarian brick structure of the 1950s that housed so many merchants. The exterior design, with its sloping roof that proclaims “Lexington Market” in painted letters, is a nice nod to the past, when markets were more open.
Many nearby vintage structures along Eutaw and Baltimore streets have been restored. The market district is getting a much-needed injection of investment.
There are obvious differences between the two buildings. Walk inside the front door to Eutaw Street and there is a grand staircase leading down to the ground floor. This contrasts with the sloping terrazzo floor of the old market.
The new market has an elevator that buyers seem to have discovered and used.
It was good to see people congregating at vendor counters and enjoying the experience. The new market is simply new and not as worn as its venerable neighbor.
I recommend a last stop, out of nostalgia, at Faidley Seafood which remains active for the moment at the rue Paca entrance to the old market. [The new and the old markets remain open simultaneously as Faidley’s gets ready to relocate to its new digs. It is the only merchant left in the 1950s structure.]
Faidley’s is still a pleasing mix of overhanging signs and bright neon signs that contrast with the clean look and order of the new market. If the new market seems a little sterile now, give it 20 years to develop its own personality.
What became clear on this visit is that shopping in the markets today is not the same as it was 30 years ago – and by the way, what is it? There were no apple and pear pyramids or potato bins.
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The shopping experience in the Baltimore market has changed over the past 40 years. The crowds and hustle and bustle of market day are still present on Sunday mornings under the Jones Falls Highway. The downtown Sunday market is colorful and the experience holds up well on some of the best days of Old Lexington Market.
It’s a mark of Baltimore’s simplicity — the downtown Sunday Market lives on in a sketchy setting, under a noisy freeway on broken asphalt pavement. It’s an unlikely location, though the chime of Sunday morning church bells from nearby Zion Lutheran Church adds a note of class.
You’ll never confuse downtown Baltimore’s Sunday Market, or Lexington Market, with Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, another wonderful urban retail location, but a different marketing experience.
There is also a Saturday morning market in Waverly along 32nd Street. It has grown in recent years and now spills over onto Brentwood Avenue. Like its downtown counterpart, it’s a bustling experience where its dedicated guests know how to arrive early. Parking can be a disaster, but that’s not stopping these shoppers.
There are also changes in our eating habits. Castle Farms, a dairy mainstay in the old Lexington Market until it closed some 25 years ago, sold several varieties of cottage cheese that were in demand then but seem to have disappeared from the table today. The butchers were selling cuts of meat that we would be disgusted to eat. Would customers make the trip downtown for a pot of fresh grated horseradish? More likely than a home baker would make the trip for fresh shredded coconut, if it was available.
Baltimore’s other neighborhood markets have also evolved. The former Broadway Market sheds have regained the identity of a seafood restaurant and a few traditional market stalls. Cross Street Market also takes the restaurant route. Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue is undergoing a major renovation.
Look for more vendors to fill the spaces in Lexington Market and take some time to observe how its location is upgraded as well. It’s another lesson in how Baltimore is reinventing itself.
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