Monday, April 30, 2007


Sam Smith

AN EXTREMELY SAD DAY for your editor and many others in this city. In the course of approximately 12 hours, two buildings of great importance to this city went up in flames, buildings with strong links to my own life and those of many Washingtonians.

The first building was one of the best and oldest farmers' markets in the country, a ten minute walk from my house and a source of many a meal and the locale of many a conversation. On weekends, the sidewalk outside the market would become a Penny Lane, attracting people from all over the city.

The second building was the Georgetown public library, a few blocks from my first home. I visited the library as a child and only last week had donated some photographs and written recollections of that period in Georgetown. It was a repository for some of the most important historic paintings and documents of Georgetown and the city.

I walked down to Eastern Market this morning and found a crowd of residents and vendors just staring grimly at a building that has meant so much to them over the years and which has served as a de facto community center for Capitol Hill.

My own ties go back the 1960s when I edited a neighborhood newspaper and some of my advertisers worked in the market or across the street.

Nobody was hurt in either fire, except for a large number of deeply saddened hearts.

Some news reports follow:

PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - Vendors and customers stood looking grimly at what was left of one of the city's great neighborhood icons, Eastern Market, badly damaged in a fire still smoking this morning in one corner. The interior was destroyed, the roof badly damaged, but the structure still stands. Vendors were being escorted into the building to retrieve any valuables and personal items they could find. Neighborhood residents had been awakened by friends in the middle of the night with the bad news. Second generation merchant Chris Calomiris was called at three a.m., but didn't believe it until his father confirmed the news. Calomiris and his brother had been rebuilding their stand on Sunday and were coming back today to finish the job.

DC EXAMINER - Public fresh-food markets were included in L'Enfant's original plans for the City of Washington. Capitol Hill has had a farmers' market from almost the inception of the City of Washington. The Eastern Market, completed in 1873, was designed by Adolph Cluss, a prominent local architect who designed the Franklin and Sumner Schools as well as many other post-Civil War buildings in the District of Columbia. Today, Eastern Market is one of the few public markets left in Washington, DC, and the only one retaining its original public market function.

As Capitol Hill's population spread in the early 20th Century, a new addition consisting of the Center and North Halls was added. Eastern Market was unofficially recognized as the "town center" of Capitol Hill. Both the Eastern Market building and its interior are designated National Historic Landmarks. The market had been in continuous operation since 1873!

Today, you can find a large variety of fresh local fruits and vegetables, flowers, delicatessen, meat, cheese, poultry, bakery and dairy products. There is also the Market Lunch - renowned for its crab cakes and blueberry pancakes.?

The southern half of the landmark was gutted by the blaze, which took firefighters two hours to extinguish. The fire nearly demolished the collection of meat, produce and other shops that is a popular destination throughout the region. . .

"This is devastating," said Alan Etter, a spokesman for the District of Columbia fire department. "Basically everything is charred and destroyed." The building is owned by the D.C. government.

MARC FISHER, WASHINGTON POST - Eastern Market was what people talk about when they get all misty about the possibilities of a city. It was a place where people came not merely to gather necessities or shop for frills, but rather a place where people came to see and be among each other. I don't live on the Hill. I don't even live within 20 minutes of the Hill. But my family and I try to get over to Eastern Market regularly because we know for a certainty that we will run into people we know, that we will meet folks who will enrich our lives, and that we will feel as if we are part of something less random than a walk through downtown or a visit to a suburban shopping center.

The Hill residents who live nearby and stop in at the Market each morning or afternoon to buy meat, cheese, bread or produce, or the people who make it a habit to buy a salmon cake or crab cake from Market Lunch on the way to work are, along with the merchants, the heart of Eastern Market. This was the kind of gathering spot that many city neighborhoods once had. After the collapse of the O Street Market in Shaw and the conversion of a similar facility in Georgetown into a very upscale gourmet shop, Eastern Market was all we had left. It became, all at once, a neighborhood marketplace, a symbol of what the District could be for people of all races and economic levels, and a draw for tourists and visitors. . .

All nostalgia aside, we have lost too many places that serve this purpose, this grounding, this commons on which we know we will meet others who are part of our city, bit characters in our lives. There's a lot of talk about how this society becomes ever more anonymous, about how technology brings us together in its own remote, faceless version of intimacy, leaving us ever more alone at our keyboards. Eastern Market was--and will again be--an antidote to that alienating force.


WUSA - [The Georgetown Library fire] went to a third alarm shortly before 1 p.m. Monday afternoon. Early reports indicate there is significant damage to the library. Most of the roof has been burned off. One of the first people on the scene, a volunteer firefighter Mark Livingstone, said he noticed smoke coming from the roof. Livingstone and others say the first fire hydrants did not operate properly. Also, Dave Statter reports there was difficulty getting water to a hose line on an area ladder directly in front of the burning building.

According to neighbors, the library has the Peabody room on the second floor where many historic documents relating to Georgetown and City history are kept. The Library of Congress is assisting in salvage operations of the documents, and a freezer truck will be there to help preserve the documents that suffered water damage.

This is the second historic building to burn in DC today, but is believed to be a coincidence.



At 9:10 PM, Blogger Eleanora said...

This is very sad news! I haven't been home in over 10 years, but I knew and loved Eastern Market! I trust it will be rebuilt and reopened????


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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.


Here are a few tracks:





APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal