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Neighborhood Life: The Ups, Downs, and Day-to-Days on East Monument Street

R&M Bargain Store - Photo by Arianne Teeple
R&M Bargain Store - Photo by Arianne Teeple
When Bill Richardson thinks about how long he's run his produce stand at East Baltimore's Northeast Market, he says simply, "Too long."  

It's the kind of wry comment one expects from a grandparent or a neighborhood veteran. And Richardson is certainly the latter when you consider the five generations his family has spent doing business on East Monument Street.

"I started coming here with my mother and grandfather when I was 6 years old," he says. "That was 68 years ago."

Richardson Farms has brought fruits and vegetables to the community stretching around Johns Hopkins Hospital at least one day a week since 1930. "Weddings, funerals, whatever -- we've been open every Saturday," he says, himself a grandson and grandfather connecting both chronological ends of the family business.

Northeast Market is one of five facilities operated by the Baltimore Public Markets Corporation. The most well-known might be Cross Street Market in Federal Hill, Broadway Market in Fell's Point, and Lexington Market on downtown's Eutaw Street. For centuries, Baltimore has served as a magnet for farmers from Maryland and other states to bring the bounty of their lands for sale to city-dwellers. These days, though, the Richardsons are the only purveyors of fresh produce at Northeast Market.

Has Bill seen a lot of tenants come and go? "Everyone," he replies quickly. "Some spaces probably ten times." Aside from plants you can eat like field cress and collards, there used to be over a dozen flower stands in the long market space that begins at the corner of Monument and Chester streets. All of those florists had their own greenhouses. Now, the Richardsons tend over two acres of greenhouses on their seven farm properties in and around White Marsh, but not one of their seven thousand hanging flower baskets gets sold at the 80-year old family fixture in the city.

"This has turned out to be the little part of our business," the patriarch laments, noting that his granddaughter manages the suburban store that beats his urban revenue by a factor of four or five. "I've lost my heart in it."

As for what makes it worthwhile to stick around Northeast Market, it's the people.

"You've got a good group of merchants in here. Nobody in Northeast Market has a reputation for cheating the customer. It's a good place to come and shop if what you want is here."

When it comes to decisions on what to bring in from the farms, he says, "This area is basics. That's it -- basics."

Among the generations of neighborhood residents who frequented Northeast Market both when it had dozens of butchers and florists, and now that the smells of fried foods dominate, 13th District City Councilman Warren Branch and his family have been consistent clients.

Councilman Branch spent his childhood just a few blocks up Chester Street from the market, and though a generation younger than Bill Richardson, he's seen his share of changes in the area he now represents.

Richardson's timeline starts in his youth in the 40s and 50s. He reflects back to when Chester Street was a magnet for clothes shopping, and furniture stores kept working families comfortable in their new row homes in neighborhoods that became blighted during Baltimore's population tailspin. Branch highlights more recent changes he has witnessed, like ten Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity houses that brought former President Jimmy Carter to East Baltimore's Jefferson Street, adding to dozens of Habitat homes that have gone up in the past few years, and he is encouraged by the Johns Hopkins Live Near Your Work program, which promotes home ownership in many neighborhoods near Hopkins institutions across the city.

"If you look at this community at least five or ten years ago compared to now, you'll see the transformation," Councilman Branch commented during a recent Tuesday afternoon stroll through Northeast Market. "It's come a long way. It's a positive transformation given the fact that on that block of Jefferson Street you would have six and seven groups of drug dealers standing on the corners selling drugs all around the market. You don't see that anymore. Crime is down in the 13th District for once." He adds that homicides there are at their lowest since 1974 due to the work of Eastern District police.

In addition to safety, commerce is of course a major factor for the area's economic and social health. Branch likes to be part of the economic base: "I buy and I shop where I represent," he says. "I'll go to Monument Street instead of going to the shopping centers out in the county to buy my clothes and everything."

The councilman acknowledges that more work needs to be done to raise the economic baseline. "I would like to see a parking garage placed over here instead of a lot, and that way business people and customers will be able to park. We can open up Monument Street so you can have the pedestrians stop and shop. We're also working with Johns Hopkins on keeping the money in the community, building, and improving the district."

Many who, like Warren Branch, were born and reared within walking distance of Northeast Market and the stores along Monument Street, share his ethos: "I'm not going anywhere -- this is where my roots are."

The Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition is one of ten designated main street areas in the city, each of which struggles with its own local concerns and symptoms of national and international economic weakness. Part of the battle is drawing new customers and their money to local storefronts, which is a challenge Cindy Herman knows well.

Herman is the president of the East Monument Street Merchants' Association. Her family has experienced a different evolution of the area than the Richardson or Branch families. The Hermans have operated R&M Bargain Store at Monument and Madeira streets since 1994, and Cindy has headed the commercial group since 2006.

She has seen residents become less reliant on public transportation and more likely to drive, which has made them more mobile and less likely to shop on Monument and nearby streets. There has also been a decline in the number of customers coming over from Johns Hopkins facilities: "We have plenty of customers we would see on a weekly basis several times who we don't see for months on end now." The security booths surrounding Hopkins facilities create a sort of safe zone but also mark a boundary for many.

"There's so much untapped resources if we can get the students and faculty and physicians," Herman says, "We're not saying everyone has to shop on Monument Street but they don't even give them the alternative to shop on Monument Street."

Despite the stigma of crime, the annoyance of parking difficulty (exacerbated by store owners and employees spending all day in spots in front of their own properties) adding to declining spending money for local residents on fixed incomes who feel inflationary pressure in food and energy prices, Herman says occupancy in local storefronts is remarkably resilient:

"As bad as the economy is, this year we've had two new businesses open up already on Monument Street, so I take that as a sign of some kind of movement in the positive direction as far as the economic status of Monument Street. When a spot is vacant, it's not vacant for anything more than a year."

To those who haven't taken a walk down her main street yet, Herman says simply, "The only way to get the real experience of Monument Street is to come and have a shopping experience here."

Sam Hopkins is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and the publisher of Bmore Media.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- R&M Bargain Store
- Uniforms at R&M Bargain Store
- Cindy Herman, owner of R&M Bargain Store
- A storefront on E. Monument Street
- Bill Richardson at his Richardson Farms produce stand in Baltimore's Northeast Market
- Richardson Farms produce stand in Baltimore's Northeast Market
- Richardson Farms produce stand in Baltimore's Northeast Market
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