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Baltimore City markets change with the times

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It was reassuring to see some vintage favorites open for business at the latest incarnation of downtown Baltimore’s Lexington Market. The shoe repair stand is open and there’s a hot dog vendor with frankfurters twirling on a grill.

Physically, the market, which had a soft opening a few weeks ago, is a very different building from the utilitarian 1950s brick structure that housed so many merchants. The exterior design, with its pitched roof that proclaims “Lexington Market” in painted letters, is a nice nod to the past, when markets were more open air.

Numerous nearby vintage structures along Eutaw and Baltimore streets have been restored. The market’s neighborhood is getting an infusion of investment it needed.

There are obvious differences between the two buildings. Walk inside the Eutaw Street front door and there’s a large staircase leading to the main floor. This contrasts with the sloping terrazzo floor of the old market.

The new market has an elevator that shoppers seem to have discovered and were using.

It was good to see people back congregating at the vendors’ counters and enjoying the experience. The new market is just that new and not as timeworn as its venerable neighbor.

I recommend a last stop back, for nostalgia purposes, at the Faidley’s Seafood that remains in business for the time being at the Paca Street entrance to the old market. [The new and the old markets remain open simultaneously as Faidley’s gets ready to relocate to its new digs. It is the only merchant left in the 1950s structure.]

Faidley’s is still a pleasant jumble of overhanging placard signs and neon-lighted signs that contrast with the clean look and orderliness of the new market. If the new market seems a bit sterile now, give it 20 years to acquire its own personality.

What became apparent on this visit is that shopping at markets today is not the same as it was 30 years ago — and by the way, what is? There were no pyramids of apples and pears or bins of potatoes.

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The experience of market shopping in Baltimore changed in the last 40 years. The surging crowds and hustle/bustle of market day is still present on Sunday mornings under the Jones Falls Expressway. The Sunday downtown market is colorful and the experience holds up well in contrast to some of the best days at the old Lexington Market.

It’s a mark of how unpretentious Baltimore is — the downtown Sunday market endures in a crude setting, underneath a noisy expressway on broken asphalt paving. It’s an unlikely location, even if the peal of Sunday morning church bells from the nearby Zion Lutheran Church adds a note of class.

You will never confuse Baltimore’s downtown Sunday market, or Lexington Market, with Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, another marvelous urban sales venue, but a different marketing experience.

There’s also a Saturday morning market in Waverly along 32nd Street. It’s expanded in recent years and now spills over to Brentwood Avenue. Like its downtown counterpart, it’s a bustling experience where its devoted customers know to arrive early. Parking may be abysmal but that doesn’t stop these shoppers.

There are also changes in our eating habits. Castle Farms, a dairy mainstay of the old Lexington Market until it closed about 25 years ago, sold multiple varieties of cottage cheese that were in demand then, but seem to have fallen off the table today. Butchers sold cuts of meat that we’d be squeamish about consuming. Would customers make the trip downtown for a jar of fresh grated horseradish? More likely that a home baker would make the trek for fresh grated coconut, if it were available.

Baltimore’s other neighborhood markets have evolved as well. The old sheds of the Broadway Market have found an identity as a seafood restaurant and a few stalls of a traditional market. Cross Street Market is also taking the restaurant route. The Avenue Market, on Pennsylvania Avenue, is undergoing a major upgrade.

Look for more vendors to fill out the spaces at Lexington Market and take a little time to observe how its location is being upgraded as well. It’s another lesson in how Baltimore reinvents itself.

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