Flocking Back for Beef and More

Leon Calomiris waits on Diane Brockett at Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables, which displayed letters sent after the fire. (Photos By James M. Thresher/Post)
By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Flat iron steaks. It's been nearly four months since a fire in the Eastern Market South Hall stopped Capitol Hill neighbors and devoted shoppers from purchasing the tender slabs of Union Meat Co. beef.

So yesterday morning, when the market opened at a temporary location across the street from its burned-out shell, shoppers lined up to purchase flat irons and other cuts of beef -- and veal, pork and lamb. Oh, and strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, figs, bananas and mangoes.

And some imported cheeses, homemade pastas, fresh spices, sweet potato tarts and cupcakes. Sunflowers, irises and Gerber daisies, too.

"It's nice to have it back," said Gerald Ken, who lives on Capitol Hill and frequents the market three or four times a week with his wife, Ivy, and 2-year-old daughter, Io. "It's been a crimp in our lifestyle not having it."

An early morning fire April 30 badly damaged the historic building, built in 1873. The Capitol Hill community quickly organized to raise money and assist the merchants. A few weeks after the fire, the city held a groundbreaking ceremony for the temporary building.

Some vendors, such as those selling fruits and vegetables, moved their businesses to the streets outside the market. But those needing refrigeration or other equipment had to wait until the city constructed a $1.6 million reinforced white tent, equipped with heating, air-conditioning and $1 million worth of new stoves, refrigerators, scales and cash registers.

John Duncan, who moved to Capitol Hill in July 1975, said he and other neighbors worried that the merchants would be put out of business because they had to suspend sales for so long.

"That's what we were most concerned about," he said. "These are all businesspeople. They must make a living. They have a payroll, and they must pay people."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said his office assisted the merchants by providing tax exemptions and suspending rent payments. The temporary building, on the Hine Junior High School playground, will house 14 vendors until the city completes a $25 million renovation of the market, which is estimated could take two years.

Shoppers began to line up outside the temporary market -- dubbed "East Hall" by merchants --at 7:30 a.m., said Juan Jose Canales, owner of Canales Deli. But no one was let inside until 9:30, when Fenty officially opened the market for business.

"It was like the day after Thanksgiving shopping," Canales said later in the morning as he sliced a pound of roast beef for a customer.

Once inside East Hall, shoppers with canvas bags, carts, baskets and strollers gawked at the immense selection and chatted with vendors. Just outside the door, a musician played selections from Bach on his flute.

Bobby Dodd wandered up and down the middle of the long building, trying to decide what to buy. Dodd, 45, lives in Oxon Hill, but he grew up near the market and used to visit every Saturday.

"It's a remarkable place," he said. "And it's not going away."

The Ken family purchased corn, leeks, garlic and bananas from Calomiris Fruits and Vegetables, which was decorated with a banner thanking patrons and the mayor, along with letters the owners received after the fire. The Kens also bought some flat iron steaks for dinner.

"Meat has returned to the neighborhood," Ivy Ken said with a laugh. "It's been a long time."

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