- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

A devastating fire yesterday hit the historic Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. Refrigerated chests of fresh produce and spots where customers once lined up to eat delicious blueberry hotcakes are now nothing more than the ravaged remains of a three-alarm blaze. Reaction from vendors, patrons and journalists alike was tell-tale, with many saying they felt like they had lost a friend. We stand with Mayor Adrian Fenty, who vowed to rebuild the market “100 percent.” We ask, though, whether he will sustain the same view on rebuilding schools?

The history of Eastern Market, whose construction was completed in 1873, is a testament to George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the capital, as well as the evolution of Capitol Hill itself, where families of freed blacks and newly arrived immigrants used to work side-by-side while their children played together. One such family is Calomiris and Sons, with patriarch Chris having been born on the site that now houses the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The Calomiris family, in the produce business for generations and vending at Eastern Market since 1963, got the call about the fire about 3 a.m. and now wonders how they will move on.

The response from the city is on record. The initial call about the blaze came at 12:37 a.m. The roof over the South Hall, where the Calomiris family and others marketed their produce, meat and foodstuffs, eventually collapsed. An estimated three hours and 160 firefighters later, the fire was under control.

The fire gutted the market’s interior, but the 134-year-old red-brick facade still bridges the past to the future. As the mayor said: “This building has such great history and importance to the city. We’ll bring it back 100 percent. How could we not? It’s going to take some resources and some good planning but … that’s too much history to let get burned away.” Mr. Fenty made his comments less than six hours after the fire broke out. He did so despite the fact that rebuilding Eastern Market could prove to be challenging for his fledgling administration, since red tape, onerous regulations and rank incompetence have long stymied efforts to modernize D.C. schools. The mayor will have to do more than cut red tape to live up to his “100 percent” commitment. He’ll have to move mountains.

Eastern Market, which is a cultural landmark, is but one D.C.-owned facility compared to the 140-plus buildings in the school inventory, which the mayor will soon have under his purview. We’ll be watching to see that, if a mountain is moved for Eastern Market, then the range should be cleared for school children. After all, like Eastern Market, schools are more than mere bricks and mortar.

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