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Despite Challenges and Change, Market Is Still 'Another World'

Faced With Ebbing Crowds, Capital City Complex Takes on International Flavor

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page DZ10

Travel east on Florida Avenue, past North Capitol Street and New York Avenue, and on the left is a neighborhood unlike any other in the District, one that has existed for more than seven decades with its own culture and characters -- and endless array of aromas.

Pigs' feet and prime rib, chitterlings and pork chops, West African butter bread, okra, apples and eggplant -- all are for sale at the Capital City Market. There are even wholesale shops peddling those T-shirts that tourists buy downtown with FBI and CIA spread in big letters across the chest.

Wholesalers and distribution trucks crowd Fourth Street NE. The Capital City Market, which stretches from Second to Sixth Street NE, replaced a wholesaling district that was razed in 1931 to make way for the National Archives building.

Owners of convenience stores and small restaurants come to stock up for the weeks ahead. So does Maggie Corley, 55, a housekeeper at Howard University, who comes every three or four months to buy what fills her fridge and freezer. Her main stop is Murray's Country Meats, where on a recent Thursday she bought bacon (2 pounds), hamburger (4 pounds), pig tails (5 pounds), turkey necks (5 pounds), a case of chicken legs and 18 pork chops.

Her total bill, she said, was about $93.

"You can't get prices like this anywhere," said Corley, who brought along her son, Antonio, 38, to help lug the bags to her Southeast apartment.

Sprawled across eight blocks between Second and Sixth streets NE, and bounded by New York and Florida avenues, the market has existed in various incarnations since 1931, when Jews and Greeks and Italians were behind the counters of the meat, poultry and produce shops. A handful of the older businesses remain, including A. Litteri's, an Italian grocery that has been on Morse Street since 1932, and Leo Dekelbaum & Sons, a meat wholesaler that opened in 1935, back in the days when the butchers wore ties and dress shirts beneath their aprons.

These days, those behind the counters are largely Koreans and Chinese and Africans who specialize in catering to the new immigrant-owned restaurants and groceries that have moved to the region. The proprietors are men such as John Obeng of Ghana, a former hospital housekeeper who started his business by buying plantains and delivering them to Africans in the Baltimore area. Now he owns Obeng's International Wholesalers, which he operates with his wife and three daughters.

Paul Pascal, a lawyer who represents the Dekelbaums, has witnessed the market's evolution firsthand since the 1950s. For all the changes, he said, the market remains what it has always been: a singular place with its own rhythms and rituals. "It is another world," he said. "There's nothing like it anywhere in the city."

But with the opening of a nearby Metro station on New York Avenue, and the encroachment of developers of office buildings just to the west, the future of the market is uncertain as properties in the area grow in value. Large chains such as Costco and similar big-box retailers have lured away customers. On many weekdays, the aisles are empty at one of Capital City's best-known attractions, the D.C. Farmers Market, a warehouse on Fifth Street that houses 52 vendors.

A new study by the District's Office of Planning recommends that the market be refurbished, and that the city try to install restaurants along the surrounding streets and establish a culinary institute and kitchenware outlets to draw more patrons to the neighborhood.

"I would like to see something more polished," said Deborah Crain, a neighborhood planning coordinator with the Office of Planning. "With the opening of the Metro station and new building, this is a grand opportunity to have expanded uses at the market."

Philip Choi, the owner of the building that houses the farmers market, said he can imagine the property being redeveloped for retail, dining and even condominiums. Walking around the market one recent morning, he said the crowds of shoppers have thinned visibly. "Ten years ago, you couldn't park at the farmers market, and now you can park everywhere," said Choi. "Business is bad.

"Tomorrow, you give me $100 million, I sell," he said.

A few feet away, across from a meat vendor and a vegetable stand and near a small shop selling homemade body colognes with names like "Obsession" and "Blue Jean," Tony Thompson stood behind the counter that has been his workplace since 1971. He sells music -- by such musicians as Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Barry White -- and funky, wide-brimmed hats to match the soundtrack.

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