To stroll through any of Baltimore's municipal markets is to experience a sharp reminder of the passage of time. These places, as much a part of our city's eccentric history and sustenance as Arabbers—that waning breed of horse-drawn produce-hawkers—have changed considerably since they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries.In those days, the busy marketplaces served as microcosms of the communities around them. They were a Babel of German and kosher butchers, Polish sausage makers, Italian bakers, and fishmongers, who harvested their catch from the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers from the county would trundle in produce by the wagonload, and residents of surrounding working-class neighborhoods could do all their shopping in one place.
"It was like the Lower East Side in New York," says Elliot Bodner, who took over Lexington Market's 96-year-old Mary Mervis Deli in 2003.
At one time, visiting the market was a special occasion, says Casper Genco, executive director of both the Lexington Market and the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., a nonprofit that operates the other five markets: Hollins, The Avenue (on Pennsylvania Avenue), Broadway, Cross Street, and Northeast, near Hopkins Hospital. "I have pictures of people dressed up in their finest clothes—going to purchase upscale products, like a crown roast of pork." This, of course, was in the days before Giant and Safeway. "They were the early supermarkets," Genco notes—albeit during a time when stepping out for groceries could be as much an event as it was a chore.
Today, the six markets (another city market, Belvedere Square Market, 529 E. Belvedere Ave., isn't part of the downtown group) vary widely in both density of shoppers and products offered. They have evolved with the city, says Genco. The narrow aisles at Lexington Market—with 8,000-15,000 people per day, by far the busiest of the sites—crisscross between stalls that sell Chinese fast food, fried chicken, overstuffed corned beef sandwiches, and Latino food. There's also, Genco proudly points out, "a white-linen Indian restaurant called MemSahib." Yet, in large part, the markets still fulfill their original mandate. "They serve parts of the city that are underserved," Genco says. Some of the markets remain in neighborhoods without grocery stores, and he tries to maintain a balance between the vendors of take-away foods and perishables: vegetables that come from Jessup wholesalers each day, meats that range from oxtails and pigs' feet to pork roasts and filets, as well as fish for every pocketbook, from porgy and the mysteriously sourced "lake trout" to fresh salmon and scallops.
Baltimore's municipal market system is deemed the oldest continuous system in the United States, says Eric Holcomb, a planner in the city's Historic Preservation Division. It all started in 1782, when John Eagar Howard granted permission for a farmers' market on his property, known as Howard's Hill. As the city's boundaries grew to encompass the market, it became known as Lexington Market, and, in 1822, it served more than 60,000 people. But even then, the market offered more than mere provisions; it was an attraction for out-of-towners. Ralph Waldo Emerson took away the impression that "Baltimore is the gastronomical capital of the world" after a visit to Lexington Market. These days, there's a similar appeal for tourists. "People who have lived in the neighborhood for years still go to Cross Street Market to buy food," Holcomb says. "And the rich people go to drink beer and shuck oysters." But that dichotomy, he says, "creates the intangible authenticity that makes for cultural tourism." Here's a look at some of the vendors you'll find at the markets.
1700 Pennsylvania Ave.
Along this stretch in West Baltimore, an area once known for concert halls, jazz clubs, and speakeasies, The Avenue Market is an important resource for the community, says Johnnie Williams, operations manager for the Baltimore Public Markets Corp. The Avenue was built in 1957 to replace the 1871 Lafayette Market, which had burned to the ground four years earlier. Williams doesn't see The Avenue, with its adjacent Murry's food store, becoming a tourist attraction anytime soon. "It's a community market in the heart of an urban neighborhood," he points out.
Mary's, a carryout near the market's entrance, seems to have a steady stream of customers throughout the day, serving breakfasts that feature a variety of pork products, and, later in the day, sandwiches. There's a T-shirt vendor whose inventory seems dominated by images of the new President and his family, and a stall with all things gospel: books, recordings, and religious statues.
Leathornia (Lea) Bailey opened her stand just after The Avenue Market was renovated in 1996. Community Produce reflects her personal mission: Fresh fruits "are a hard sell here," she says. Bailey's husband, Andre Bailey, is known as "The Juiceman"—he visits elementary schools throughout the city to show kids how sweet and satisfying fresh produce can become when it's mashed up into a drink. "The kids love the carrot juice, and they go home and tell their parents," Lea Baily says.
On Sundays, in season, you'll find the Baileys at the downtown Farmer's Market, where their portobello breakfast burritos and fruit smoothies draw long lines. But Lea Bailey's day job, so to speak, is at the city market. "We could make more money in a fancier neighborhood, but we want to give back to the community," she says.
1640 Aliceanna St.
Sophia Para has operated her Polish bakery and deli, Sophia's Place, in the Broadway Market for 24 years, and she rarely sees the bustling crowds of times past—in fact, the block-long covered building in Fells Point is eerily quiet on a Saturday, though outside the cobbled streets are busy. This afternoon, a few customers sit on stools at the lunch counter across the aisle, where specials are scrawled on paper plates, and the smell of well-used cooking oil permeates the air.
The Polish people who once lived in the neighborhoods around Fells Point and nearby Highlandtown, Para says, have mostly moved to suburbs like White Marsh, Rosedale, and Timonium.
But Para has no intention of relocating her business. "My customers know where to find me," she insists. When Christmas and Easter roll around, she has orders for babka, sausage, and imported chocolates. And people call on the phone for advice on preparing traditional borscht and pierogis, she says. Customers come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
The walls behind Sophia's counter are stacked to the ceiling with Polish jams and pickles, jars of sauerkraut, and boxes of cookies. A string of dried porcini mushrooms hangs behind the counter. This pricey, delicate fungus, known as prawdziwki in Poland, is used sparingly in a special holiday soup. The deli case is an encyclopedia of sausage, including swojska (homemade smoked sausage) and kabanosy (sticks for snacking), and Para is anxious to offer a sample of Krolewicz, a Polish version of Swiss cheese, with a nutty flavor, or chrusciki, a pastry formed into bows and squiggles, and rolled in powdered sugar.
But with the exception of a fresh fish stand, there's no other inventory to be found here: Broadway Market is mostly barren, with only a smattering of fast-food restaurants in the two long buildings, places where you can sit at a counter stool for coffee and eggs, pizza, or a plate of rice and beans.
While the newer residents of the neighborhood visit the market, says Para, they usually only stop in on weekends, and her Polish specialties are more novelty than day-to-day comestibles. "They're more likely to go to Whole Foods," she sighs. Sophia may not be lonely for much longer, however. Genco, the markets' executive director, says he is negotiating with a developer who plans to renovate the market, which he hopes will result in new, "upscale tenants."
Cross Street Market
1065 S. Charles St.
Kim Tyson opened My Flower Box in Cross Street Market in 2006. The fact that it's directly across from another store called The Flower Shop doesn't seem to bother anyone. "Twenty-two flower shops have come and gone," says Bill DeWall, who bought The Flower Shop 28 years ago with his wife, Wanda.
Besides, the DeWalls' business is markedly different from the store operated by Tyson and her business partner, Lori Cover.
Neither shop depends on walk-through customers, which DeWall claims have dropped dramatically since last October's economic downturn. While the older enterprise works with such national delivery services as FTD and Teleflor, and sells bunches of holiday-themed arrangements, Tyson's shop has tall containers of single stems: French tulips, ranunculus, anemones, delphiniums, and gerbera daisies. She and Cover also do plenty of weddings, and are affiliated with a network of boutique florists for local deliveries.
Cross Street Market opened in 1846, a long, open-air shed between Charles and Patapsco, with an identical building put up a block to the east in 1864. After the first building was condemned, the city commissioned architect Frank Davis to design an Italianate-style hall with a public gathering place on the second story.
These days, the market is a cacophony of businesses, anchored by Fenwick's Meats on one end, where people buy food to take home and prepare for dinner, and Nick's Seafood, a popular spot for downing beer and oysters while watching the world go by. Tyson for one, would like to see Cross Street continue to evolve. "I'm not crazy about the cell-phone shop across the way. We should be more like a European open-air market, with fresh produce, a wine-and-cheese shop."
26 S. Arlington Ave.
When Dominic Rigatuso was a boy, he needed 25 cents each week: 14 cents for the movie, 5 cents for a box of Good and Plenty, and 6 cents for his weekly bath at the public bathhouse on Hollins Street. Rigatuso earned his money by sweeping up at his grandfather's barber shop on Saturday mornings and then racing to the synagogue on Poppleton Street hoping to be first, so he could flick on the light switch for the rabbi, who would pay a nickel for the service. If he didn't make it in time, he'd be stuck shoveling out stalls for the Arabbers to make his nut.
Rigatuso, now 67, clearly has strong ties to the neighborhood, and when he inherited his grandparents' house across from the Hollins Market, he decided to start a business there.
He opened Custom Salads in 1990. "People told me a salad place wouldn't fly. It's more of a fried chicken neighborhood," he says. "But I stuck it out. It took me two years to convince the neighborhood that romaine isn't a Chinese vegetable—like lo mein."
Initially, many of his customers were friends from the fire station on Carey Street. "Then they'd bring their friends, and other stations around the neighborhood would come in, and local police departments," he says. He posted menus and delivered to the nursing stations at nearby hospitals such as Bon Secours and St. Agnes. "Now they come to me, I don't have to deliver anymore," he says.
Like some of its siblings, Hollins Market is the neighborhood's grocery store. And along with its seafood, poultry, produce, and butcher shops, it has other items you might find in a supermarket: barrettes and baseball hats, greeting cards, toiletries, and small gifts. There's also a cell-phone vendor as well as a shop with religious items. And like other Baltimore municipal markets, Hollins has the look and feel of an older place: vintage signs are printed with family names that have been around for generations. "Sure, the stores have changed hands," reminds Genco, "but one thing the new owners are buying is the goodwill from over the years."
The neighborhood around Hollins Market is "on the upswing," says Rigatuso, who is president of the Hollins Market Merchants Association. "The 'hood has matured. We got out of that hanging-out thing, and more influential people are moving in."
400 W. Lexington St.
Elliot Bodner is Mary Mervis Deli's third owner, but he is determined to make sure that his patrons won't know the difference. "This place is an institution," says Bodner. "I get fourth-generation customers." His staff, too, predates him, with many of the employees busy making thick sandwiches behind the counter having logged 20 or more years.
The deli has a kitchen in a downstairs area of Lexington Market, directly below the festive green-and-white painted stand. There, Bodner cranks out 2,500 pounds of corned beef, 1,500 pounds of shrimp salad, and nearly 900 pounds of roast beef each week.
Operating a family-owned business takes a certain skill, says Bodner, who remembers vegetable deliveries from a horse-drawn carriage in his native New Jersey—even if the business isn't his own family's. He just returned from his first vacation in six years, and says the key to maintaining a presence is, "You have to be here all the time to make sure things are done right."
He's clearly doing something right. At lunchtime, Lexington Market is packed, and one of the longest lines stretches from the Mary Mervis Deli. There's also Konstant's, a hot-dog stand that dates to the 1800s, and Krause's, known for its freshly roasted turkey sandwiches, and, of course, Faidley's Seafood, with its famous crab cakes. In the arcade area, people crowd around tall tables designed for eating while standing up. The walls above are decorated with blown-up replicas of labels from vintage Maryland products: Gibbs Pork and Beans, Eagle Coffee, and Wissahicken brand tomato pulp, illustrated with an image of a Native American in full headdress.
You'd be hard pressed to find a can of Wissahicken tomatoes at Lexington Market these days, but you can buy a pay-as-you-go cell phone, a risqué birthday card, a plastic robot from China, or a bottle of cheap "bum wine."
2101 E. Monument St.
Bill Richardson has been working at the Northeast Market for 65 years—since he was six years old and would come with his parents from the White Marsh farm that was started by his grandfather in 1900. When he was a kid, he says, there were a dozen or so farmers at the market, which, until 1955, was a long, wooden barn.
Richardson Farms market has been around since 1930. At the turn of the century, the neighborhood around Monument Street near Johns Hopkins Hospital was largely Czech, known as Bohemia Village, and Northeast Market, established in 1884, was filled with German and Czech merchants.
These days, Richardson is the only local produce vendor in any of the six markets. He sells several hundred crates of greens a week. The long stand, which occupies much of the northeast corner of the market, also sells eggs and poultry. He supplements his seasonal supplies with fruit and produce from the wholesalers in Jessup.
Last year, Richardson finally stopped processing his own chickens, he says. Now they come from factory farms on the Eastern Shore. And while his main business is shipping produce to New Jersey and Philadelphia from the farm, Bill Richardson still spends most days at Northeast Market. "We have a lot of people who buy five or six grocery bags at a time from us," he says. "Most of our customers are regulars and live in the neighborhood."
Shoppers at the Northeast Market come for rotisserie chicken, packaged loaves of white bread, and thick deli sandwiches. Mary Liersemann Trzcinski is 76 years old and helps her daughter Loretta Curran with Loretta's Flower and Spice Shop—which sells few flowers, unless they're found in their medicinal teas. Loretta's also has organic herbs in bags and bottles, and bulk items like beans and cornmeal. Stall 51 is right across the aisle from the space once occupied by a flower shop started by Mary's grandparents in 1912. "They were flanked by two pickle stands," she recalls. Today, you'll only find pickles at the market's delis and lunch counters.