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In District, Mourning For Eastern Market

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

There was a wake yesterday on Seventh Street SE.

One by one, mourners lined up on a red brick sidewalk for a chance to peer into an open doorway and grieve over the charred remains of the Eastern Market, where peddlers sold fruits, vegetables, meats and breads uninterrupted for 134 years.

The market's South Hall, destroyed in an early morning fire Monday, was much more than a shopping destination. It was a meeting place on Capitol Hill, with conversation and character. What's left are memories of colorful vendors and all that they sold: the wide slab bacon and the peach turnovers and the cheeses that can't be pronounced.

Yesterday was supposed to mark the reopening of what's left -- the outdoor stands, the flea market. But many people were fixated on what's no longer there.

"Oh my God!" some cried as they entered a makeshift foyer created by the city, the brainchild of Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin, who wanted the public to view the gutted interior to see the damage and learn more about fire prevention.

Edward Robinson, 47, shook his head in disbelief. His eyes welled with tears that never dropped. "I proposed to my wife here. . . . I fell in love with her right here. This is a death in the family. Yeah, it is. Yeah, it is," he said, recalling how he popped the question as they ate fish sandwiches. "Wow, I feel violated. It's a strange feeling."

He and other visitors didn't get to see the full extent of the three-alarm fire. A barricade made of plywood kept the public from fully entering the building. But they got a vivid picture of why officials say it will cost as much as $30 million to fulfill Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's promise to rebuild the place.

The concrete floor was smudged black with soot. The glass cases, which once held chicken and steak at Canales Quality Meats, were shattered. The ornate windows -- some circles and some arches -- were boarded up. The ravaged roof was turned into a string of skylights opened to the gray clouds that hovered over the city.

In the vestibule, most people spoke in soft voices as if standing over a loved one's casket. "I've been coming here for the last 40 years," said Annie Brown, 72, recalling the many times she turned to the market for her Christmas duck.

Like ushers, fire Sgt. Thomas Riddick and inspectors K.C. Cole and John Kelly greeted spectators and answered questions.

What caused the fire?

"They think it was electrical, but it's under investigation."

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