Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on August 29th, 2014.
Walk into Reading Terminal Market, an enclosed public market in downtown Philadelphia, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by an assortment of rich smells and bright colors. You’ll see fresh produce and sushi, specialty cheeses, artisanal scarves, and natural oils. On occasion, you’ll even spot someone playing classical music on an electric keyboard. The central dining area is lined with flat-screen TVs.
Founded in 1893 but redeveloped in the 1990s, Reading Terminal has rebranded itself as a bustling hub of healthy food, community events, and tourist attractions. It has that liberal, “multicultural” feel to it—offering a wide variety of ethnic foods, incorporating patchworks of Pennsylvanian history, and acting as a significant food stamp redeemer for the city. There are customers spanning the socio-economic spectrum, but the average patron earns an annual income in the $35-60,000 range. Come around noon and you’ll catch a cluster of men dressed in black fancy suits standing by the famous Dutch Eating Place, awaiting Amish specialties like hamloaf and corn mashed potatoes.
Why care? Well, this all matters because Reading Terminal stands as a prime model for the Lexington Market redevelopment plan. Baltimore’s historic public market, which was described as “where you want to be for heroin” on National Geographic TV’s recent report on Baltimore, seeks to change its customer base, its food selections, and its reputation as a notorious drug hub.
Though many are quick to insist no “cut-and-paste approach” will be used, Reading Terminal’s general manager Paul Steinke is working directly with Lexington Market and the Maine-based consulting firm, Market Ventures, to help Baltimore through these transitional times.
Reading Terminal is a fun place, but the idea of using it as a model for Lexington Market’s future raises questions about the city’s larger objectives. In contrast to Philly’s Reading Terminal, most of Lexington Market’s visitors are black and earn less than $25,000 per year. It’s no secret that part of the redevelopment plan is to help “expand its offerings” in order to attract wealthier customers.
The plans for the market are ambitious. Although the figure $25 million has been thrown around in press reports, Ted Spitzer, president of Market Ventures, tells City Paper he “has no idea” where that number came from, and that he would not be surprised if the cost substantially exceeds that amount.
“Construction is not cheap,” he says.
Officials are careful to say that throughout the redevelopment they want to preserve Lexington Market’s “historic character.”
But when pressed on what that means, specifically (there’s been a lot of history since 1782), vague answers abound. “It means different things for different people,” Spitzer says. “That’s one of the things we’re trying to discover, what are those [important, historical] elements?”
“There’s a plan that’s going to help us figure that out,” Lexington Market’s executive director, Robert Thomas, says. “We’re just beginning with the consultant now to answer those very questions.”
From preliminary conversations, reports, interviews, and surveys, one can reasonably guess that Lexington Market will get a new physical structure (maybe keeping its iconic entrance sign) and work to bring in businesses that cater to shoppers with greater disposable incomes. “We’re looking at local niche branding, niche talent, niche entrepreneurs,” Thomas says. Likely no chain stores. After more than 5,000 people filled out Market Venture’s online survey in March, and 600 more participated in in-person interviews, officials say customers want options like freshly baked bread, locally grown produce, finer cheese, and gourmet coffee. Some existing businesses will surely be kicked out along the way, though officials say they haven’t begun to figure out exactly which ones those will be.
One of the major goals of Lexington Market’s rebranding is figuring out how to make it feel “more inviting” to wealthier consumers, such as hospital workers, area students, and tourists visiting the Inner Harbor.
But Lexington Market already has a security budget of $900,000—for cops and surveillance—which is off the charts compared to markets around the country. And the city increased the number of police dispatched to the market back in 2012, resulting in more arrests. Spitzer told The Sun that drawing in more affluent customers is one way to get rid of the area’s “negative behavior.” In the same Sun report, Kirby Fowler, president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said, “the environment that’s conducive to the sale of prescription drugs is not conducive to drawing tourists to the market on a daily basis.”
Ultimately, the plan is to make more arrests, “clean up the area,” and get that “seedy stuff” out of sight, out of mind. The plan, it seems, is not to eradicate poverty; it’s to mitigate the unseemly sight of it. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she envisions the future Lexington Market to be a “thriving mixed-use, mixed-income community.”
The city is investing a lot of money in Baltimore’s development. Local colleges are putting forth financial backing, too—UMBC is renovating a building on the southern edge of Lexington Market—but the city’s track record of reinvesting money derived from courting richer consumers back into the lives of the city’s poorest has been less than stellar.
On a recent Wednesday during the crowded midday hour, Lexington Market stalls sell snickerdoodles, vape pens, customized gym socks, grills, and endless lunch options, as workers mingle with or watch customers milling around the market. The hungry people of Baltimore chatter idly over Faidley’s famed crabcakes or a stall offering its “Super Breakfast”—two jumbo eggs, toast, potatoes, and bacon for a mere two dollars. Signs welcoming Independence Cards hang prominently at most stands. It smells awesome and greasy. But for many stall owners, some of whom will probably not make it into the new market, the future remains unclear.
“They don’t say nothing,” says Mike Houvardas, who has run the Bergers cookie stand, which serves the famous handmade cakes and cookies, for over 40 years. “We know nothing. Everybody says, the radio says, the television says, the newspaper says they’re gonna redo the market, but we know nothing.”
Elliot, a vendor at Mary Mervis Delicatessen who would not give his last name, is more optimistic about the changes. “It seems things are getting better already, I see a difference,” he says. “The walls, the floors, it’s cleaner. And we’re bringing in new people, bringing in new merchants. Come back in six months, it’ll be nothing like it is now.”
Additional reporting by Gianna DeCarlo.