Suburban blandness claims another victim

April 09, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN RANDALLSTOWN, the Old World yieldeth, giving way to a new chain drugstore. In downtown Baltimore, the Lexington Market, 218 years old, awaits $3 million in renovations. There is the difference between suburbia and the city: one wipes out a history in the making, while the other attempts to hold onto the things that make it unique.

In Randallstown, the Old World Deli and Bakery on Liberty Road prepares to shut its doors. You want Old World, you got it here: Ukrainian kielbasa, Russian sturgeon, ham from Prague, German sauerkraut, Baltic rye bread, Hungarian sausage, sweet white cherries from Poland, Russian pelmeni, fruit juices from Belgium, pecans from Greece, and all of it enough to sustain a business for nearly a quarter-century.

But Old World has lost its lease to a future Walgreens drugstore, and its owners have to move out by late summer. And never mind that Walgreens has another store just up the road, at Liberty and Milford Mill, or that Liberty Road in the two miles between the current Walgreens and the coming Walgreens has more than half a dozen other drugstores, plus a glut of the following: strip shopping malls, gas stations, laundromats, burger joints, pizza joints, car washes, psychic advisers, and homogenized chain stores beyond counting.

Have we forgotten? This stretch of northwest Baltimore County was once a quiet, bucolic country lane. Nobody imagined, in the sweeping city exodus to suburbia in the last half of the last century, that it would remain so. But who could have imagined such endless commercialized congestion and uglification?

What the Old World Deli and Bakery offers is its uniqueness -- not only its East European atmosphere but its willingness to adapt. Begun mainly as a German deli, it expanded its menu with the arrival of Russian immigrants.

"We went to New York and got butchers to make recipes closer to the Russian palate," Gary Hein was saying last week. He and his mother, Annie Hein, own the place. The New York connection is the defining gesture: This is not a chain store, big enough to be oblivious to the subtleties of its customers' tastes.

"And now, all you've worked for your entire career, going down the tubes," says Hein.

"I can't even tell you what it feels like," says his mother. "We can't just pack a suitcase and go. We don't even know where we can go."

Because Old World sells food, grocery stores with noncompete clauses can block them from relocating in shopping centers. Because they sell beer and wine, they can't locate near schools or houses of worship. A U.S. post office that sits directly across Liberty Road is about to be moved and thus looks inviting. But the land is owned by the federal government, and any changes could take a few years.

Henry Weisenberg, executive director of the Liberty Road Business Association, is trying to help. He calls Old World one of the area's "prime attractions." But how can he convince Baltimore County officials that uniqueness matters, that this is not only a loss of character but a victory for the bland homogenization that seems characteristic of so much of suburban life?

This brings us to life in the city, and the current efforts to revitalize the west side of downtown Baltimore. Let's not be coy about this: It's been dismal for a couple of decades now, with old businesses shut down and moved to malls, and old buildings fallen into decay and drug traffickers changing much of the area's ambience.

The city is about to lead a $350 million renovation attempt -- which, it was revealed last week, may include about $3 million for the Lexington Market.

That would be nice for tourists, and for locals, who hold onto fond memories of the place but have become too intimidated to get near it in recent years.

For both audiences, the market is crucial. For tourists, such places take them away from the malls, and the chain stores, that they know back home and can find in any suburban setting. There are some things money can't buy, and history is one of them. The market has charms just waiting to be reborn and rediscovered.

But this is also an area surrounded by the University of Maryland professional schools, and lots of young people with spending money. The market should be a meeting place for them, instead of a haunted house that frightens them every time they think they spot a dope deal in progress along its fringes.

And that's the intention behind the proposed $3 million renovation: not just to spruce up the place, but to hold onto its history, and to the things that make a community unique, instead of slipping into bland homogenization, one thing pretty much like any other.

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