Flower Mart chief blends vigor, sense of history

April 24, 2001|By Michael Olesker

LOST IN THE mists of the 84-year history of the city's annual Flower Mart is this little gem: As a boy, Fred Bierer remembers cutting school every year to attend. This fact is mentioned for all those who thought Flower Mart tradition was strictly about little old ladies and black-eyed Susans and a vague sense of dilettantes at play. It is not.

Bierer brings up the hooky-playing in maybe the first five seconds of lunch the other day. Lunch is a cheeseburger with a side order of cigarettes. One cigarette lights the next. Bierer's pink face is occasionally visible behind wafts of smoke, and each sentence he utters extols all the grand possibilities for the annual gathering, set this year for May 16 at Mount Vernon Place.

Between bites of cheeseburger, he mentions food for the Flower Mart. He lists the Brass Elephant and the Belvedere Hotel and Faidley's of Lexington Market. All are setting up booths. He mentions the Biddle Street Caterers, which will sell hot dogs and coddies. He mentions Tio Pepe's, which leads him to Emiliano the great chef.

"Emiliano," he says, "is preparing shrimp. Only, the man will not use pre-peeled shrimp. So he has to peel 18,000 shrimp to make 5,000 orders of shrimp in garlic sauce, which is only the greatest appetizer in the history of restaurants in Baltimore."

Are we clear? The Flower Mart arrives within days of this year's Preakness - "A hundred thousand tourists in town," Bierer says - and he wants the Mount Vernon event to show off the city's charms to tourists, to urban types, and to every suburbanite with wistful memories of growing up in Baltimore.

His little confession about cutting school to attend the Flower Mart tells us something important. Bierer may be the new kid on the block - he became Flower Mart president last year after the ladies of the Women's Civic League placed themselves into voluntary retirement - but he comes to this endeavor with a sense of history, and reverence, and never imagined it as the singular province of any gentrified municipal set.

"My image of the Flower Mart," he says, "was always the pretty ladies in big hats and gloves and pearls, and the beautiful setting, and the great food. It presents us in our best image. It shows that we connect with the flavor of our own past, which is very important. We never want to lose that. But it's also about everybody getting involved."

Bierer's a great involver. He's a city kid who grew up to practice law a few blocks from Mount Vernon Place, but he's also a civic do-gooder, a well-known soft touch, and a guy who's believed in the city when others weren't so sure. He's 53. The energy bursts out of his pores. Everything about him seems antithetical to the traditional Flower Mart image of gentility and flowers.

"Right," he quickly agrees. "How did we go from the Women's Civic League to this meshugana?" That's a Yiddish word, implying a certain frenzy, a certain craziness. A year ago, for example, Bierer showed up to coordinate his first Flower Mart - at 5:30 in the morning.

"Nobody else was there," he says, still apparently marveling that others might be asleep at such an hour. "At 6:30, I was still the only one there. By the end of the day, everybody had a great time except me."

He says he's been a workaholic since he was a kid. He watched his parents work from early in the morning until late at night. They had a small store at North and Greenmount, "a great growing-up experience, learning about people," he says.

"But we forget things about the city. Mount Vernon has the Peabody, the Walters, all the great restaurants. I want people to feel good about Baltimore. I want them to see the treasures of Mount Vernon. This isn't just about the Flower Mart, it's about connecting something of grace and charm with the rest of the city."

Some of this, he comes by naturally. For all the energy spilling off of him, Bierer's a sentimental soul who talks about passing on lessons of civic-mindedness to his children. For all the talk of being the new kid in the festival business, he comes at this with much help from some of the old Women's Civic Leaguers who still want to help out - and with the blessing and guidance of William Donald Schaefer.

Bierer bumped into Schaefer just after the Women's Civic League had announced its retirement.

"I'd hate to see this end," Schaefer said.

"Me, too," Bierer said.

"Then let's do something about it," Schaefer said.

He put Bierer in touch with some of the ladies. And so a torch was passed to a new generation: one that might use the flame to light one cigarette after another - but also understands the gentle tradition of the Flower Mart, and wants to pass it through the new century while remembering the old one.

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