A ballpark's archaeology

Baltimore Glimpses

April 07, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE ORIOLES in Oriole Park at Camden Yards are playing baseball on a carefully manicured diamond, on resplendent, Maryland-grown, real grass.

They are also playing on a spot Baltimore's unique Center for Urban Archaeology could really dig! The site not only yielded up Babe Ruth's father's outhouse; it could also render spark plugs, mufflers, sailcloth, old bottles, egg shells and (it they weren't biodegradable) numerous animals, nightshades, fruits and vegetables: chickens, kale, rutabagas, potatoes, oranges, apples, bananas and spinach.

Into the 1970s, this neighborhood, from Russell Street on the west to Charles on the east, Camden on the north to Lee Street on the south, was a mighty complex of warehouses, wholesale houses and a few seedy coffee shops and rooming houses. There were some automotive and marine supply houses, but the area for the most part was dominated by the traffic and commerce of Baltimore's great, bustling outdoor produce market.

In size and number of merchants, it was one of the country's largest. It crowded both sides of Camden Street mostly to the east of the railroad station and warehouse (both preserved in the building of the baseball park) and spilled crazily south on Hanover and Charles and into the side streets -- Conway and Barre.

The area, ramshackle and bedraggled, full of rats that feasted on discarded produce and animal parts, was quiet during the day.

But late at night (early morning, actually) it came alive with commerce.

Trucks carrying produce and poultry rumbled and roared off Russell (across right field) and from the Light Street wharves through the too-narrow streets to the B&O produce shed.

Vehicles parked at all angles, sometimes double-parked. In loud confusion the drivers unloaded oranges, apples, peaches, bananas.

At the same time, milling about in the same streets were the trucks of the retailers and the horses and wagons of the A-rabs.

"The stench," a report said, "puts hygiene in the background."

It was part Arab bazaar, part Iowa country fair.

The names of the wholesalers were legendary in Baltimore: Lenasa, Hollaway, Lewis (poultry), Smelkinson (butter and eggs), Stevens, Fava.

A passerby, attempting to negotiate the maelstrom, had to bob and weave through boxes of tomatoes piled high, cages of chickens, crates of eggs, piles of trash, slow-moving horses, mounting piles of manure, stalled trucks, rotting vegetables, sleeping bums.

Improbably, the wholesale produce market, a waterfront and urban phenomenon, was moved in the mid-1970s to Jessup, which had neither water nor a lot of people.

The area today encompasses the ballpark, Convention Center, the Hyatt and Sheraton hotels and, of course, the railroad station and warehouse.

And a player rounding third in Oriole Park at Camden Yards ought to be especially careful.

He might slip on a banana peel.

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