It was reassuring to see some vintage favorites open at the latest incarnation of Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. The shoe repair stand is open and there is a hot dog vendor with frankfurters swirling on a grill.
Physically, the market, which had a soft opening a few weeks ago, is a very different building from the 1950s utilitarian brick structure that housed so many traders. The exterior design, with its sloping roof proclaiming “Lexington Market” in painted letters, is a nice nod to the past when markets were more open.
Many old buildings nearby along Eutaw and Baltimore streets have been restored. The neighborhood of the market is getting an infusion of investment it needs.
There are obvious differences between the two buildings. If you go through the front door on Eutaw Street, a grand staircase leads to the ground floor. This contrasts with the sloping terrazzo floor of the old market.
The new market has an elevator which shoppers seem to have discovered and used.
It was nice to see people gathering around the sales counters again and enjoying the experience. The new market is just as new and not as dated as its venerable neighbor.
I recommend a last nostalgic stop at the Faidley’s Seafood which 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.]
[ Retro: Lexington Market was a Baltimore favorite even before revitalization ]
Faidley’s is still a pleasant jumble of overhanging billboard signs and neon-lit signs, contrasting with the clean look and order of the new market. If the new market seems a bit sterile now, give it 20 years to develop its own personality.
What became clear during 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 apple and pear pyramids or potato crates.
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The experience of market shopping in Baltimore has changed over the past 40 years. The swaying crowds and bustle of market day are still present under the Jones Falls Expressway on Sunday morning. The downtown Sunday market is colorful and the experience holds up well in contrast to some of the best days at old Lexington Market.
It’s a sign of how unpretentious Baltimore is — the downtown Sunday market takes place in a rough setting, under a noisy freeway on broken asphalt pavement. It’s an unlikely location, although the ringing of church bells on Sunday mornings from nearby Zion Lutheran Church adds a class.
You’ll never confuse downtown Baltimore’s Sunday Market or Lexington Market with Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, another wonderful urban marketplace but a different marketing experience.
There is also a Saturday morning market in Waverly along 32nd Street. It has been expanded in recent years and now spans Brentwood Avenue. Like its downtown counterpart, it’s a busy experience where its loyal customers know they need to get there early. Parking might be abysmal, but that’s not stopping these shoppers.
Our eating habits are also changing. Castle Farms, a dairy mainstay of old Lexington Market until it closed some 25 years ago, sold several varieties of cottage cheese that were popular then but seem to have fallen off the table today. Butchers sold cuts of meat that we would squeamishly consume. Would customers drive downtown for a jar of freshly grated horseradish? It’s more likely that a home baker would make the trip for freshly grated coconut if it were available.
Baltimore’s other neighborhood markets have also developed. Broadway Market’s old sheds have found an identity as a seafood restaurant and a few stalls from a traditional market. Cross Street Market also takes the restaurant route. The Avenue Market on Pennsylvania Avenue is currently undergoing an extensive modernization.
Keep an eye out for other vendors to fill the spots at Lexington Market, and take a little time to see the location upgrade as well. It’s another lesson in how Baltimore is reinventing itself.