Image problem can't stall venerable city market

May 26, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AT WEEK'S END, with everybody looking to get rich along downtown's west side, Lou Pinkney gazed down from a second-floor walkway at Lexington Market and mentioned the glories of the corned beef sandwich. It goes, at the market, for $3.50, meaning you'd have to be crazy to buy it anywhere else in the vicinity.

"And so big," said Pinkney, "that you could make three sandwiches out of it. And you know why? Because the merchants are all competing with each other here, so they've got to make the biggest sandwiches and the best food."

As he said this, he enjoyed the remains of a crab cake from Faidley's Seafood one floor below.

"You take the Korean deli," Pinkney said now. He turned to Leonard Jaslow. Jaslow is the market's general manager and Pinkney sits on its executive committee. "What's it called now?"

"Matthews Deli," said Jaslow.

"Right," declared Pinkney. "And this Matthews Korean deli, they make the second-best corned beef in the entire market. She wraps it so beautifully, I don't want to open it. It looks like a gift you don't open until Christmas morning."

We are having this conversation for perspective. All week long on the west side of downtown, people talked in terms of high-rise buildings and millions of dollars. This is wonderful for real estate developers, and one of these days, if things go according to plan, it might even bring livability back to downtown.

On Wednesday, there were these big-ticket developments: announcement of a developer for an upscale high-rise at Pratt and Paca streets near Oriole Park; confirmation by the University of Maryland of their plans for a 17-story student residence on Fayette Street; and, after months of delays, news that Bank of America will break ground June 6 on a $70 million retail and residential complex (400 apartments), widely seen as the key to reviving the long-decaying Howard Street corridor.

One day later, the University of Maryland announced its plans to transform a swath of deserted land west of its downtown campus, near Martin Luther King Boulevard, into a biotech park.

"Wonderful," said Lou Pinkney, offering freshly baked cookies from one of Lexington Market's bakery stalls.

Everyone at the market cannot wait for completion of all the big-dollar west-side projects: the new Hippodrome Theater, the new student housing and so forth.

In the meantime, though, we have the market itself. It is, at 220 years old, the oldest continuously operating market in America. It sits in the midst of all this rehabilitation, going about its business. An estimated 4.7 million people shop there every year, tromping through the place six days a week. It is now undergoing $4 million in renovations, financed entirely by the market itself, with a new exterior, new windows, new paint, new signs, new restrooms and plans for some new tenants.

But there exists a nagging problem: image.

Some of it comes out of a history, and some of it from myth. Outside the market, too many people stand around with nothing to do. Within a short walk of the market, there are five drug rehabilitation centers, from which addicts drift toward the market.

The vast majority are trying to straighten out their lives. But to many passers-by, so many people standing around one place gives off an aura of menace.

"And then," says Pinkney, "anything that happens within a few blocks of here, they put it on the TV news that there's trouble at the market."

"There isn't any trouble at the market," says Jaslow. "Actual incidents of crime, almost nil. There isn't anything that happens."

Police officials confirm the general description. Most of their activity there, they say, involves nuisance behavior around the market.

"But it's the perception," says Pinkney. "We're known for people standing around on the sidewalk, instead of the beauty of the market."

By "beauty," he isn't referring to the $4 million renovation. He means the history, which goes back to George Washington's time.

"How many businesses last 10 years?" says Jaslow. "This one's lasted 220 years."

"The patriots of the Revolutionary War rode past here," says Pinkney. "But it's always been this great mix, which we still have. It used to be the merchants were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today, they're immigrants from Korea, Greece, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Caribbean. It's America. It's the mix."

In the midst of so much promising new development, it's nice to hold on to the city's ancient endearments as well.

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