Melting-pot market Cross Street: Though most of Baltimore's public markets have been edged out by grocery stores, many shoppers still visit Cross Street Market, where people of different cultures and income levels mix.

August 11, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A picture in the editions of Sunday, Aug. 11, erroneously identified Taylor's Meats as Nunnally Bros. Meats.

The Sun regrets the error.

Ed Knott keeps the schedule of an urban farmer. Up hours before the sun, laboring before most coffee pots click into action, ragged around the edges by noon. You could squeeze in nine innings between the time he begins his day and dawn.

Knott's job is simple and essential to South Baltimore. On this Saturday at 5 a.m., he unlocks two doors -- one on Light Street, the other on South Charles Street. And Cross Street Market, a lavish street dance of Old World and New Age, attorneys and addicts, the trendy and timeworn, yawns awake for business.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Cross Street Market, 150 years old, is more than a ripe slice of nostalgia in a Starbuck's world.

It is a block without strata, a neighborhood family room. A South Korean karate teacher grills Polish sausage next to a Highlandtown produce merchant who worries about America's shrinking family size. A Greek immigrant slips a homeless man a free egg sandwich.

"I've seen it," says Gilbert Pinnock, a retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. maintenance man from West Baltimore, who travels across town to shop at Cross Street. "I'll always come here for the people."

The market is a cinder-block-and-brick hangar lined with 34 stalls, peddling sushi next to tulips next to herbal medicines, where work is always hard but it doesn't always pay. It is a museum of generations, a clearing house for fish, fruit and gossip.

"There's always something going on around this place," says Knott, who has remained in South Baltimore for his 60 years. "I mean at all hours."

Like the market, Knott starts slowly on a pre-dawn summer day. First stop is the counter at Steve's, inside the Light Street entrance. Veronica Huscio, who works the counter, allows Knott to brew the day's first pot of coffee and help himself. She arrives about 20 minutes later from Baltimore Highlands and immediately begins sizzling sides of bacon and boiling onions.

Knott punches the time clock, picks up a broom, and heads outside. The neighborhood is an amalgam of yuppie Thai food restaurants and bistros, pawn shops and liquor stores, real estate offices and windowless bars. Trash from a Friday night -- Mexican beer containers and bottles of fortified wine littering the sidewalks -- needs picking up. Knott works at it in the dark.

Inside, merchants are setting up stalls for a day's commerce. Cross Street is the second busiest of five markets now run by the quasi-private Baltimore Public Markets Corp. Only Hollins Market surpasses it.

Once, 11 markets formed a constellation around Baltimore's heart, but most have been edged out by grocery stores. The original wooden Cross Street Market burned down in 1951. It was rebuilt the next year and has remained, at least physically, almost the same since.

Steve's does a bustling breakfast business. The smell of bacon is pervasive, at least until Cross Street Seafood opens at 8 a.m. Steve's owner is John Nichols, whose family arrived in Fells Point from Sparta, Greece, 27 years ago. His father started the lunch counter, Nichols helped expand it after graduating from the University of Baltimore, and wears a green kitchen smock today as its owner. He didn't intend to be.

"I decided to help out, and I got stuck here," he says.

Because of Steve's, the Light Street end of the market wakes up first. By 8 a.m. there is a line. Neighbors belly up for conversation and coffee. Vincent O'Sullivan, a delivery man for H&S Bakery, takes an egg sandwich break at the Formica counter halfway through his route. "They treat you one by one," says O'Sullivan, who has held his job for 30 years.

Shoppers from Pasadena and West Baltimore trek in for heads of lettuce and handshakes from merchants with more to say than "paper or plastic?" Young professionals from Otterbein and Mount Royal drop by for the European flavor. "You can afford the humanity," says Duane Herbel of Mount Royal, food shopping with two friends. "You don't have to go to Giant," he said.

"Everyone else in the world food shops daily except for Americans," says Pat Moran, who lives in Mount Vernon. "You get your favorite vendors."

The market features an unorthodox capitalism, more yielding than the superstores. The homeless often receive free food. Longtime customers can run a tab. At Cross Street, consistency means good credit.

But commerce is still a preoccupation. And as traditions fade around the city, so too do the fortunes of traditional merchants. "People just don't have big families that they stay home and cook for anymore," said Rob Jackson, whose grandfather Albert Earl Jackson, started the fruit stand bearing their surname in the 1930s.

Rob is 39. His day starts at 3 a.m. with a call to the Jessup produce market, except on Saturdays, when he gets an extra hour of sleep. He will inherit the stand from his father someday.

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