Lexington Market puts on new face

Renovation: Emporium seeks wider appeal with $3.5 million makeover.

November 29, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The man has a serious cappuccino craving.

And Leonard Jaslow, general manager of Lexington Market, is determined to see the frothy coffee sold at one of the 137 stalls that offer everything from fresh fish to roasted nuts. He even plans to give one vendor a $4,000 espresso maker to make it happen.

Not that there is a clamor for fancy coffee. But Jaslow thinks it will perk up the 219-year-old gastronomic emporium now in the midst of a $3.5 million face lift.

To him, it's one more way for the market to capitalize on a city-led attempt to revive Baltimore's west side, where hundreds of apartments are planned.

"We want to show ourselves off," he said. "We want to be part of the activity and excitement."

His goal is to widen the appeal and audience of the market - owned by the city and run by a quasi-public corporation - while catering to loyal customers who turn it into a frenzy of eating enjoyment at lunchtime.

He wants to keep current offerings and add new ones - a cheese stand, say - that might appeal to young professionals and empty-nesters. Evening and Sunday hours are possible.

Jaslow's task is tricky. He has fought, and largely retreated from, a battle to move a liquor store that sells 95-cent mini-bottles of vodka just inside the market. And shopkeepers say whatever happens inside, daytime drug dealing occurs outside amid a sea of loiterers.

City officials agree the area needs improvement. "We have to do better," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. He said a range of organizations can help, from the Police Department to the Downtown Partnership business group.

Marketing apartments

A more inviting market is seen as a way to lure residents to new apartments such as those that have opened in the old Hecht's department store on Howard Street, a block away. Pennrose Properties hopes to build a 250-unit apartment building above the market's garage on Paca Street, and Bank of America plans 383 units a block south. "Lexington Market will be the grocery store for people moving into the west side," predicted Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership.

Catherine Caskey Fennell of Pennrose said: "By us putting 250 rental units down there, it's only going to help the market. And the market will help us. We can say, `You can walk out your front door and buy groceries.'"

The draw might not be automatic, Just ask Denise Kuruc, who works at nearby Hopkins Plaza. The other day, she and a friend walked to the market for lunch, their first trip there in five years.

"I wouldn't come here alone," Kuruc said. "I don't feel safe." She said she was there only because a friend wanted a Rheb's Candies treat. Between bites of a turkey sandwich, she said it was too bad she didn't feel more at ease in the market. "It's definitely cheaper than other places we go, and it's very good."

Two days before Thanksgiving, the market buzzed as loyal shoppers such as Gladys Spell - a retired aide at the now-demolished Murphy Homes - got ready for the holiday. She bought a plump turkey at Dave Green's Poultry and sweet potatoes and sauerkraut at other stalls.

Though she now lives in East Baltimore, she visits the market often. If she needs beef, it's Tamberino's; if she needs seafood, Faidley's. "I can get everything I want under one roof," she said, smiling.

All around her, the market was alive, its narrow corridors packed with people. At Lefty's Produce, a stooped man in an apron called out, "Hey! I got tangerines, strawberries!" At Park's Fried Chicken, workers rushed to fill orders, shrinking a pyramid of golden-brown drumsticks.

Lively outside, too

Out on Eutaw Street, the scene was almost as lively. Dozens of people stood on the sidewalk. Some waited for a bus, others sold candy and still others just lingered. Cigarette butts were everywhere, and pigeons gobbled up crumbs.

The din drowned out the sidewalk preacher warning, "You people are afraid of anthrax, afraid of terrorism. That's nothing compared to hell!"

Jeff Weisfeld, co-owner of Lexington Liquor Shop, pointed to several men he said had been barred from the market for various infractions. He said pills and heroin change hands on the street: "They're making deals in front of you 24/7."

Recently the market and the liquor store clashed. Jaslow wanted it moved to a far corner of the market, saying, "It's just not the type of thing to have at the doorway."

The store's owners clung to their prominent spot. Weisfeld said he never sells to those barred or drunk: "The base of my customers are working people." He said more security will deter loitering.

At one point, Weisfeld and partner Wayne Smith alleged racism, accusing Jaslow and a black member of the market's board, Louis Pinkney, of trying to drive off African-American customers.

Jaslow dismissed the accusation. None of the changes is meant to push anyone away, he said, adding, "A businessman sees only green."

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