Springing Eternal

Time has changed the annual Flower Mart, maybe even overtaken it. But under a sunny sky yesterday, the spring festival -- and hopes for its fututre -- bloomed anew.

May 13, 1999|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF

Once upon a time, Phyllis Eckels remembers, her mother, visiting from the Midwest, exclaimed of Baltimore's annual Flower Mart: "I have never seen so many beautiful people; men in business suits with hats on and ties, women in beautiful dresses with hats and gloves." "It was an elite affair," says Eckels, a member of the Flower Mart's sponsors, the Women's Civic League, for 50-some years.

Yesterday, elite was hardly the word for the annual festival on Mount Vernon. But it wasn't the biker boys in leather caps and bulging T-shirts, the weathered street person who wore his watch on the stump where his hand used to be, or the stooped old man dressed like a Boy Scout that spelled the demise of the Flower Mart as it once was.

It was the sight of the venerable Eddie Kane and the Flower Mart Band scat-singing "YMCA" by the Village People while a gaggle of pre-schoolers danced madly on the cobblestones that drove home the fact that life in Baltimore just isn't as homogeneous as it used to be.

But even amid these wonderful incongruities, the true Flower Mart, as pure as the lemon stick-scented air, shone through in infinite, timeless ways.

There were the Civic League ladies themselves, adorned in magnificent straw hats, flowery dresses and silken sashes. There were the revelers: the Audrey Hepburn wannabe with a cell phone, the lavishly attired woman who risked getting her high heels caught in the cobblestones, the politicians shaking hands and bussing cheeks. There was State Comptroller William Donald "Donnie Boy" Schaefer singing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" with the Flower Mart Band.

It may be the last Flower Mart; it may not be. The Civic League says it can no longer sustain it themselves. During opening ceremonies yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke vowed to find an answer to their dilemma before leaving office. Then city saint-in-residence Bea Gaddy also volunteered to help save the Flower Mart. But no one had any definitive answers.

Despite the uncertainty, the 82nd Flower Mart was what it was -- a ritual, all the more treasured for its faded glory and its quirky adaptations to this Baltimorean life.

Just before the 10 a.m. opening, the lemon ladies from Baltimore's Arcadia community were slicing away. This year they ordered 3,500 lemons; last year they'd sold out of 3,000 by 2 p.m. A small phalanx of the press stood before the women, dressed in flowery wreathes and red-striped jackets, capturing the puzzling pairing of lemon and peppermint stick for possibly the last time.

Sister Mary Frances, visiting the hometown she had left in 1953, was munching crab cakes with her cousin, Lee Archibald, of Riviera Beach. Mary Frances, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., was slightly disappointed. She remembers "more flowers, more people, more lemon sticks" and less flea market bric-a-brac at long-ago Flower Marts.

Her cousin, who clutched a Flower Mart poster signed by Schaefer, also was a little underwhelmed by this year's edition, yet insisted that it must continue into the next millennium. "It would be terrible if it didn't. We've got to have a Flower Mart. It's a tradition."

For some, it was a new tradition. Dru Schmidt-Perkins, director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, was in the crowd scouting for a colleague whom she had commanded to attend. Incredibly, this person had never been to Flower Mart; had never had a lemon stick. Her feeble excuse? "She grew up in Columbia!" Schmidt-Perkins huffed.

Rosemarie Brantel, on lunch break from the state's Department of the Environment, was inching through the noon crowd in straw hat, dress and lacy white gloves. She and some friends had "decided to come out and ... do all the ladylike things that are so rare these days."

For others, it was a day to mourn. Donna Beth Joy Shapiro wore black -- accented by a red vintage jacket -- to express her sorrow over Flower Mart's possible demise. "It is the best day of the year," declared Shapiro, who found herself tearing up at the sight of the Flower Mart's horse and carriage trotting along Mount Vernon's crowded streets.

Former state Sen. Julian Lapides, wearing a "Draft Mfume" button, called the possible death of Flower Mart "tragic." The denizens of Mount Vernon and other neighborhoods should take it on in the future, Lapides suggested. Baltimore has "let too many things go. There's no passion for historic places and events."

Perhaps. But on a sunny Wednesday in early May, there were Eddie Kane and his boys, not one of them under 60, ripping into one jazz classic after another as if it were the very first Flower Mart. From "Sweet Georgia Brown" to "Caledonia" to "String of Pearls," the Flower Mart Band played for all it was worth.

Sun staff writers Rob Kasper and Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

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