To really understand a place you have to go there and observe it in action. On Wednesday, September 13 the “Learning from Lexington” team met on the second floor of theLexington Market’s arcade and then had a tour from the Market manager Stacey Pack.
Pack took students into the Lexington Room where we will have our December “Learning from Lexington” event. We will listen to a brief student produced podcast on the rich history of the Market with a focus on the issue of change and how the public, both patrons and vendors, feel about these changes. We are envisioning the event as a way for the public to discuss the importance of the Market in their lives and how they envision change working for the public. Students are also working on a public history zine on the market’s past. Understanding the past is important to understanding the present and processing how places and communities are always in flux.
Stacey took the group outside to show the old bell that was ceremoniously rung to start and close business each day. We crossed Paca Street and looked at the stall numbers on the sidewalk along Lexington Street as Stacey explained how long the market once stretched.
The plans for a “new” Lexington Market (more on that later) include a plan to reopen Lexington Street, but as a pedestrian area rather than a street for car traffic. Currently Lexington Street ends at the Paca Street entrance to the East Market and begins again on the other side of the market building at the Eutaw Street entrance. It was highly controversial in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century when the market, originally a host of outside stalls where farmers and then produce sellers or butchers would sell their wares in covered stalls, was planned to be converted into an inside space with its own free standing building. As students have seen, while reading and compiling more research from the Baltimore Sun and Afro-American to add to Eli Poussson’s (Baltimore Heritage) Lexington Market: A Collection of Sources, change has long been a point of public contention regarding the Lexington Market. The vendors and some of the public fear change from the outside market into an inside market. Now the plan to tear down the current market building, which was built in 1952 with the arcade added in the 1980s, to open up space for a potential park and “farmer’s market” outside vending is in a way change for the future and a return to the historic outside stall model, abet one refashioned in the twenty-first century style of trendy “farmer’s markets” and “food markets.”
We can learn so much from Lexington Market about the city, urban space, and how power works in public spaces because it has changed with the times while maintaining its own distinct sense of place and identity directly connected to the life of a downtown… our city, Baltimore. The new changes are trying to make our market more like the Eastern Market in D.C. or Reading Market in Philly. These cities are both around the corner and completely distinct from Baltimore in many ways.
One of the highlights of the tour–one where we all had to sign release form before entering–was the catacombs. The catacombs are accessed by going through Tubbs, a restaurant and nightclub that operated under the market until … I believe Stacey said 1989 (and there was a violation for go-go dancing in 1988) but Baynard Woods, author of the longform profile of the market The Battles of Lexington for City Paper in April 2015 says he remember signs for events inside Tubbs dating to 2003. It seems like we should look more deeply into the history of Tubbs a strange ghost-like place of different times. The catacomb were “discovered” in 1951 when constructing a parking lot. The spaces below Tubbs are dark, cold, and have the old arch stonework of Baltimore basements. These spaces were used to cure meat and to bootleg whiskey… and there are stories that slaves were “stored” by their owners at the Lexington Market. That would make the history of the catacombs even more dark and nefarious. Stacey states that organizations have been interested in reviving the catacombs; however, with only one entrance, the space is not up to fire code.
We leave the dark and dank below ground space back into the daylight and walk across Paca street and into the light…