The smell of fresh fish is overpowering at first. But it soon gives way to the wafting aroma of barbequed beef. The delicate fragrance of oranges and other citrus replaces that. Lazy ceiling fans stir the olfactory smorgasbord.
The O Street Market is open for business once again.
This once-familiar D.C institution, a designated historic landmark built in 1886, has survived the retirement forced upon it by the 1968 riots.
Thanks to approximately $4 million inurban renewal funds, the restored market shines with the glint of new metal and glass everywhere. It has a new roof. It is immaculate.
But along with the market's new-found identity have come a host of trappings foreign to the Shaw community, the neighborhood that surrounds the market at Ninth and O Streets NW. For one, most of the vendors are strangers.And so are many of the people shopping at the stalls. But that reflects the community, since the neighborhood itself is changing.
The fresh egg concession is owned by a retailer in Shippinsburg, Pa. The delicatessen is operated by the owners of the Old World Deli, bordering the fashionable neighborhood off Foxhall Road NW. The spacious produce stand was described by its temporary manager as "the retail operation of the wholesale market that serves Giant, Safeway, A&P, Magruder's and Memco.
Herb Gray is one familiar face who survives from the old days. He has reopened the meat and poultry stands that were started by his father at the market in 1925.
Last weekend he was selling whole, skinned muskrats for $2 each. By mid-afternoon, they were gone.
Gray worked as a mason in the construction business after the riots destroyed the market. Pulling two 1940s-vintage photos of the old stand from his pocket, he talked about making his return.
"I've seen about 300 of my old customers since I reopened," he said. "The 20 years I've been here, I've watched the customers. It's definitely changing to a more middle-class neighborhood."
Most shoppers questioned last Saturday were from Upper Northwest. The prices are somewhat higher than the chain stores, they said, hastening to add that the quality is generally better.
And yet there were the Shaw loyalists like Celestine Smith, who said she goes to the market every weekend to buy fresh eggs and vegetables because of the exceptional quality. As she paid for a sizable bag of green beans, she showed off the goods and sighed, "These are just beautiful."
When black entrepreneur James Adkins received a federal loan in 1977 to finance the renovation, his attorney said the small businessmen who had been displaced by urban renewal would be given preference when the market reopened and the stalls were leased. But it didn't work out that way.
"I have to be candid about it," Adkins said."I had 475 to 500 people to choose from. I had to have people with a track record, with experience in finance."
Adkins said rent for a stall is $15 per square foot a week. It adds up to "about $350 and up per week," he said, or at least $1,500 a month.
The new vendors have hired many of their employes from Shaw, Adkins said. Most of the vendors are white, many of their employes black.
Such is the character of the new O Street Market, a mixture of new and old, white and black.
Meanwhile, shoppers are looking around and seem to like what they see. Sadie Braswell, an elderly, black woman from Northwest Washington, was buying fresh trout on her first trip to the market. She said she, too, liked the market, but sounded a note of caution for the future.
"It sure looks to be very nice," she said. "I hope it stays that way."