By the time the four of us got to Lexington Market on Tuesday, Feb. 18, Gov. Larry Hogan was gone. But that’s OK. He was there to talk about the market’s future, and we were there mainly to get the crab cakes, raw clams and oysters at the incomparable Faidley’s Seafood.
And not to be overlooked, to remember some of the market’s glorious past.
Hogan was there to break ground on the new South Market building, scheduled to open in the summer of 2021, all part of a $40 million project to makeover Lexington Market, the nation’s longest continuously operating public market.
What the hell, it’s time for a change at the old place, which has been a Baltimore landmark since 1782.
Also, it’s time for a change of image as well.
The four of us who arrived Tuesday – Kenny Ball, Gary Levin, Dr. Skip Millison and me – all remember better days at Lexington Market. There was a time when the raw bar at Faidley’s, for instance, was so packed at lunchtime you had to elbow your way in.
Yesterday, the seafood at Faidley’s was absolutely terrific. The prices everywhere in the market were reasonable, or better, and the vendors warm and friendly. But the crowd was smaller than the old days.
The four of us remembered throngs lined up to buy fruits and vegetables and seafood, and the good-natured back-and-forth banter between merchants and customers. That’s still there. But it’s quieter now because the crowds have dissipated.
For a lot of years, Ken Ball’s father ran a meat stall here. Gary Levin’s dad worked at the Mary Mervis deli and seafood carryout. I once spent a summer gobbling salami sandwiches there every day. My taste buds are still talking about it.
But all of this was long ago.
So let’s not be coy about this: the market’s taken on a bad image over the years. Much of it’s unfair and undeserved, but it’s there nonetheless.
Over the years, a couple of drug rehab places have operated nearby, and when they’re finished their appointments, some of the clients have chosen to hang out on Eutaw Street just outside the market.
Not every would-be customer sees this as a particularly positive welcoming committee, even though police have long maintained crime’s not a big problem in the area.
Lexington Market’s important to Baltimore, and not just because of its food or all the people who make a living there. It’s part of what makes this city unique. We’re not just a collection of bland chain stores you find anywhere in America. We have a special history, we have a bustling cosmopolitan mix.
And we need the places like Lexington Market (like the newly refurbished Cross Street Market) not only for the variety of foods but the variety of customers, the sheer gathering of people whose numbers alone remind us of our common, overlapping lives.
We stopped by the old Mary Mervis stall yesterday. It’s no longer there, replaced by something called The Dancing Potato. But we did stop by the bakery stall where they sell Berger Cookies and a bunch of other baked goods.
We got a big box of a variety of fresh cookies, which we assured ourselves our families would enjoy. Let’s just say the cookies disappeared before anyone actually got home.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.