Flames at Eastern Market

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

WASHINGTON is often accused of being a city without character or community. Sadly, one institution that consistently belied those allegations has been ravaged.

Before dawn yesterday, flames punctured the high arch ceilings of Eastern Market, the oldest continuously operating market in the District. The roof in the building's South Hall collapsed on the sausages, cheeses, pastas and tulips that have filled the building and nourished families since 1873.

Vendors and customers stood outside the building yesterday, crying and embracing as if at a wake for a loved one. Some Eastern Market vendors run shops and booths that have been in their families for generations, going back at least as far as 1946. "This is home," said Elizabeth Canales, 30, who began working at her father's delicatessen at age 8. Tearfully rubbing her pregnant belly, she sighed, "You know, my husband and I were just joking the other day that when the baby's 6 or 7, we know he'll start stuffing soda cabinets here, as well." For families like the Canaleses, and for the racially and socioeconomically diverse crowds that weekly flock there to purchase or to people-watch, Eastern Market is the heart and soul of Capitol Hill.

Now that fire has gutted the building, renovations that have been delayed for years are finally and unequivocally due. The Canales family, luckily, has fire insurance; many other vendors don't. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council have pledged to support the displaced vendors and their employees and rebuild the Eastern Market building as well as the D.C. Public Library's historic Georgetown branch, damaged in a separate fire yesterday. In the case of the Eastern Market disaster, the city should help vendors secure low-cost loans and negotiate their rents, sales tax payments and other bills. Because the building probably won't be restored for at least a year, some vendors may also need to relocate temporarily, perhaps to one of the nearby buildings owned by the District.

The D.C. government isn't the only party that can help salvage Capitol Hill's proud community tradition. Eastern Market will reopen its outdoor vending stands on Saturday, and we hope that customers will be ready and waiting. Market Day, a street festival organized annually by Friendship House Association, will take place -- complete with bandstand and children's activities -- on Sunday as planned. The Capitol Hill Community Foundation, which is taking donations to support the vendors on its Web site ( http://www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.org), will also be running a booth at the festival.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company