Superblock On The Downtown's West Side Was Once Super Indeed

March 03, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

People who never bought a pair of shoelaces along old Lexington Street are now identifying it as a superblock - a chunk of downtown real estate that made news when Peter G. Angelos and David Hillman filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Development Corp.

This block was indeed super, once, when it seemed as if half the city converged there for everyday needs. The heart of the block was its array of five-and-dimes - Woolworth's, Grant's, McCrory's and Kresge's. The soul of the block was its diverse, unpretentious people. Saturday afternoons were the busiest, like a perceptive sketch by artist Aaron Sopher come to life.

I recall a dreary fall day when a woman holding a brown-paper shopping bag walked into Woolworth's. It held her pet rooster, which she addressed as Henry. She chattered away to the rooster as if it were her husband. No one questioned the lady - or her right to be there. The word went around that she had lost her son in World War II and was never quite the same since.

I did many a double take when a pair dubbed "The Twins" appeared. These brothers were absolutely alike, and they were never seen apart. They were neatly dressed, pleasant and personable. They seemed to migrate through downtown, stopping one place for breakfast and meeting with friends at Hopkins Plaza at lunchtime. They tolerated the small crowd they attracted.

The so-called superblock shoehorned frenetic mercantile activity into those compact five-and-dimes. There were shoe-repair parlors, often in the basement, and pet shops with singing canaries. Many a goldfish rode home on the No. 19 line.

Lexington Street had an unintentionally comic side. There was, for example, the vendor who sold chameleons from a box. His chameleons were chained at the neck to a kind of leash with a safety pin at the other end. The reptiles were supposed to change colors with your outfit. Sometimes the police chased these semi-legal animal sellers away, adding a bit of drama to the afternoon.

It never got any architectural praise, but the Read's at the corner of Howard and Lexington was really quite a stunning Art Moderne structure. Its four-sided lunch counter sat in the middle of the store and did a brisk business, offering inexpensive meals from breakfast through an early supper.

You reached for a bottle of aspirin only 10 feet away from the women from Edmondson Avenue lunching on their grilled cheese sandwiches and obligatory chocolate soda. Read's was one of the few places where your slice of chocolate cake would arrive in the proper Baltimore formula, with chocolate icing and layers of yellow cake. The waitresses wore uniforms with their names affixed to frilly handkerchiefs displayed like lapel pins.

The place also did a thriving business in liquor sales, both miniatures and half-pints, a holdover from the tradition of spirits used as medicine.

In an era when the nearby department stores were racially segregated - their restaurants had a strict whites-only policy - the overall Lexington Street scene was racially diverse. Jim Crow ruled at the lunch counters, restaurants and restrooms until the 1960s. There was no segregation on the sales floors - this in a city where racial barriers were common. There, in this place, white and black Baltimoreans mixed freely.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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