Avenue Market is 'sign of hope' Opening: Officials, customers and proprietors expect the renovation of the former Lafayette Market to bring life back to the economically distressed Upton community.

December 15, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

There were insistent rhythms of a steel band; rich harmonies, courtesy of a gospel choir; and stirring speeches from a bevy of dignitaries.

But most of the excitement at yesterday's grand opening of the renovated Avenue Market in West Baltimore's economically distressed Upton community was generated by the customers who came to shop, and the merchants who served them.

"This is fabulous. We're going to frame our first dollar" exclaimed Callie Williams, owner of Body Essence, a stall selling soaps, perfumes and lotions.

Customer Alvin Parson, who lives in the area, was equally exuberant as he took in the scene and surveyed the fresh fruits and vegetables at another stall.

"It's well-lit, it seems safe, everything is so wide open," he said of the market's expansive spaces. "I think it will really uplift the community."

That's the hope of city and state officials, who paid $3 million of the $4 million cost of renovating what had been the historic Lafayette Market in the 1700 block of Pennsylvania Ave.

"This is a wonderful sign of hope, a great symbol of progress," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, one of a number of public officials to attend yesterday's opening.

Patricia Rouse -- widow of urban visionary James W. Rouse, who first had what once was considered an improbable idea of refurbishing Lafayette Market -- said it could spark a revitalization of the entire area.

"Jim said, 'What ought to be, can be when we have the will to make it so,' " she said.

Lena J. Boone, a longtime community activist who took over from NTC Rouse as head of the nonprofit group operating the market late last year, was too ill with the flu to address the crowd, but she watched the celebration with satisfaction.

"This is the life of the community," she said.

And that was the role Lafayette Market played for years.

Named after France's Marquis de Lafayette, who aided the Colonies during the American Revolution, the market opened for business in 1871 and was first rebuilt 40 years ago after it was destroyed by a fire.

It was part of a network of seven neighborhood markets, which trace their lineage to 1763. At one time they were all owned and operated by the city; now all are under private management.

For much of its history, Lafayette Market was a vibrant part of the strip of theaters, nightclubs and businesses that made Pennsylvania Avenue Baltimore's center of black commerce and culture. But in recent decades, it had declined along with the neighborhood.

By the time it was closed for renovations in September 1995, the market was troubled by empty stalls and customer complaints of poor food and lack of lighting and security.

Yesterday's reopening showed a new building decorated in red, green and gold, and festooned with flags of African nations hanging from the ceiling.

Of 38 spaces for stalls and carts, 30 are leased, according to Zed Smith, president of Urban Asset Management, the company hired by the nonprofit Avenue Market Corp. to oversee daily operations.

But only about half of those 30 were open yesterday; the others are scheduled to open by the end of next month.

"The board was adamant we open before the holidays," said Smith, explaining why the Avenue Market opened with just half its tenants.

Of those proprietors of stalls selling items from sweet potato pies to religious T-shirts, only one had a stall in the old Lafayette Market, Smith said.

The lone holdover, Chong Parks, said she will reopen her fried chicken stall in two weeks.

"I want to forget it," Parks said of the old market. "A lot of people would not come here. This time, I think, people will come."

Many of the merchants are new entrepreneurs, one of the things city and state officials and community residents wanted to foster.

Among them are Natalie Duncan, who left her supermarket job after 12 years to open Sunny Island Kitchen, which serves Caribbean delicacies.

"Family and friends say my food tastes good, so I decided to try this," said Duncan, a native of Trinidad. "I'm very happy. I have a positive attitude."

And Williams, the owner of Body Essence, had a home-based business making gift baskets before deciding to open a stall, with help from her 15-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter.

"We're going to build this as a family." she said.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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