Elegy for the Arcade: Long Live Lexington Market

May 1, 2020

What does a building mean without the people? 

These days as I sit at home, I often think about, sometimes dream about, being inside bustling buildings full of people. Will we ever get back to those days of humans packed together eating, drinking, and dancing together? 

We will, but we will never get to hang out in the Lexington Market Arcade again.

 

Even though I knew the demolition of part of Lexington Market was coming, when I saw the pictures on social media, I needed to go for a walk down Eutaw Street and see it myself. I have a deep love of the Arcade, the retro atrium-style food court in Lexington Market, in part because it is a democratic public space in a city where such spaces are few and disappearing. 

As I walked down Eutaw Street, it was clear Baltimore street life is still alive, even as Lexington Market remains primarily closed due to the pandemic. The sidewalks are not as packed as usual and some people are wearing masks. But many Baltimore residents are waiting on the bus, selling or doing drugs, and walking around the city, just like before the coronavirus crisis. Faidley’s, the oldest business in the market, is still open for take out on the Paca Street side. But, it is Eutaw Street that’s most alive. 

Various redevelopment plans for Lexington Market have been talked about for many years, so I doubted anything would actually happen. It’s happening; and, here’s what’s going on with the new Lexington Market. 

Seawall Development, the folks that brought you R. House in Remington, are redeveloping Lexington Market for the City of Baltimore. The ceremonial groundbreaking was in February, but the demolition of the Arcade began on Tuesday, April 29 with little fanfare during a time when much of the city remains shut down due to Covid-19. 

The Arcade was the two-level atrium built as an addition to the market in 1982. The first floor had a host of stalls and businesses, with a large stage in the middle where many events, ranging from fashion shows to musical performances, took place. On Saturdays, the Arcade was packed with people hanging out; many of them have been coming to the market for decades, for generations, to see and be seen.

Groups would gather by the Italian Stallion pizza spot to drink beer and listen to the band as people of various ages would dance while customers rushed through on their way to the second floor to eat food procured from market vendors. You better have purchased something to sit on the second floor of the Arcade. Security was fierce in patrolling the Arcade, which was the only part of the market that had much space to sit and socialize. 

Developers will build a new Lexington Market in the south parking lot, previous home of the annual Crab Derby festivities or the elephant parade when the circus was in town (before that was shut down). The city is destroying the Arcade to reopen Lexington Street as a “walkable, urban plaza perfect for farmers’ markets and public gatherings,” according to the market’s website.

The idea was that the current market vendors could remain open in the old East Market during construction of the new market and then move once the new space was complete. There aren’t any actual plans for the old East Market, or the West Market, which has been closed for some time, once the sparkling new Lexington Market is built. The old buildings, which date to 1952, may just loom as relics of the past haunting the landscape of the future, one I can’t really imagine. But the current pandemic has closed the East Market as well.

When the new market rises from the parking lot, what will remain of the Lexington Market we knew? This is an important question because the market and its environs are undeniably a Black public space in a city that has not shown that Black neighborhoods and Black people matter. Lexington Market, which is one of the oldest public markets in the U.S. and dates to the late 18th century, is also a space where one can trace the waves of immigration to Baltimore, including the Korean and Korean-American stall owners who currently make up the majority of vendors.

Lexington Market will remain public (city owned). In the era when public-private partnerships reign in Baltimore and cities like it, it is crucial to realize what exactly we are giving up when we privatize the public good and put our tax dollars in the hands of business people and bureaucrats focused on profits over people. I believe those involved on the city and development sides mostly have good intentions; however, a lot of bad things have resulted from good intentions in this city. 

The redevelopment of Lexington Market is a symptom of the shifts to privatization and the long history of inequitable development. However good the intentions, I do not think the redevelopment will provide or replace the thriving Black public space of the market area. Lexington Market epitomizes the vivaciousness of the street life of a city–people selling their wares, loudly socializing, proselytizing, slinging, congregating, and being seen. Many news stories on the redevelopment of Lexington Market harp on the sale of drugs and the fear of crime. As someone who lives just three blocks from Lexington Market, I think these issues are overplayed.

I could do without the occasional street harassment or public urination; however, I have spent a decade of walking by the market at least three to four times a week and never felt threatened. If you mind your business, there are no problems with drug dealers focused on earning a living. The westside of downtown is where people naturally collide due to its central location and public transportation hubs. Such conditions produce the density I love; this is what makes a city. Right now density itself has become dangerous, but that is temporary. I am not giving up on the cacophony of voices that makes a city a city. I am not giving up on Lexington Market. 

For the past ten years that I have lived in downtown Baltimore, Lexington Market has been the central force and anchor of all that is distinctly beautiful about downtown living. I walk by the market when I head to the shuttle to go to work at UMBC. When I have a bad day at work, the street life of the market raises my spirits up on my walk home. Through UMBC’s Baltimore Traces project, I have brought many students to the market. We have produced podcasts and zines and hosted events at Lexington Market.

The Lexington Market segment of the 2015 Bromo Speaks student-produced podcast is still one of my favorite examples of collaborative student work. My students also produced Tale of Two Markets comparing the Lexington Market to the new more upscale and privately-owned Mount Vernon Marketplace, which is both only five blocks and a world away. In fall 2017, I taught an entire class called Learning From Lexington, which produced a podcast, two zines designed by the talented artist Markele Cullins, and a celebration in the Lexington Room on the second floor of the Arcade. I have learned a lot from Lexington.

Thursday, March 12 was my last day out before the pandemic took away our collective access to one another. I spent that Thursday afternoon at the Lexington Market with my husband Baynard Woods and our neighbor Wendel Patrick, who was taking some photos of us for WYPR’s Out of the Blocks three-part podcast on Lexington Market. The third part has yet to air, as the world has changed focus. But back on that Thursday afternoon in March after the photos were taken, Bay and I ordered a crab cake and a Boh at Faidley’s. We talked to owner Nancy Faidley Devine about their new spot in Catonsville and her thoughts on their eventual move into the new Lexington Market. We walked out of the market that day without knowing that our lives would soon radically change.

Later that Thursday after work, I met my friend Kate Drabinski for a beer at Cultured, a stall at “the other” market in the neighborhood, the Mount Vernon Marketplace. We knew classes were cancelled the next week so that professors could move their courses online before spring break. While we sat at the bar talking, as we have done countless times, our phones told us classes the next day were cancelled. Then our phones told us that public schools in Maryland were closing. Our friend who is a high school teacher arrived exasperated at the bar for a drink. Kate’s wife who works for the state stopped by for some food as she was just told to telework until further notice. More regulars came through. 

I had an inkling, but I certainly did not know that Thursday would be the last time I would gather with people to eat and drink in a public place for many weeks. It has been seven weeks. We have hardly left our home since that Thursday.

I didn’t know the pandemic was coming. I knew the Arcade was going to be torn down. I had been to meetings. I read the newspaper. Yet it is an entirely different thing, different experience, when something you love, something so a part of your everyday life, is just gone. 

As an American studies professor, I try to understand the history, culture, and meaning of place. As part of that endeavor, I try to understand the city, something I know I will never fully understand. I still try. Thurman Jennings, a young man I interviewed in 2017 about the changes coming to Lexington Market, told me he did not want the market to change:

Lexington Market is an embodiment of the spirit of Baltimore. A lot of the residents as far as I’ve encountered don’t necessarily have the easiest ways of succeeding in life but it’s the will, it’s the drive that a person has that makes them go out and get and achieve. Lexington Market, you look around at all the business shops and you look around at all the faces. It’s that same spirit, that same drive, that same get up and go. And I don’t know what the day will bring but let’s hope for the best.

That striving, in the face of uncertainty, is our shared humanity. We continue onward despite not knowing how things will turn out. That’s just what we do, must do.

What does a building mean without the people? 

I don’t know. But, I am hoping for the best. I know the people of Baltimore have the drive and the spirit to claim space. I have seen it.

When we can all be together again, I hope to see you at Lexington Market.

 

 

For more of my reflections on the redevelopment listen to Out of the Blocks by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, Lexington Market, part 3: On a Humble, which aired Friday, May 8, 2020:

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