Baltimore’s historic Chinatown that you’ve probably never noticed sits in the 300 block of Park Avenue. But if you head there you’ll find the lone family-style Cantonese restaurant ZongShan and the neighboring Po Tung grocery, surrounded by a dotting of Ethiopian spots that have moved into the area.
This wasn’t always the case. The 200 block of Marion Street on the Westside once housed a small, but tight Chinese immigrant community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with laundries, restaurants, a school and more. After World War II, the city pushed the community several blocks northward to the 300 and 400 blocks of Park Avenue. While Chinatown persisted there for several more decades, it ultimately faded away over time as its families joined the masses flocking to the suburbs.
Now a group of local merchants of Asian heritage hopes to reignite the quiet blocks there. The effort begins next month with Baltimore’s first-ever Charm City Night Market, in the vein of other the vibrant, open-air night markets found in China, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and other countries.
Baltimore’s pop-up night market on Sept. 22—timed two days before Southeast Asia’s widely celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival—will be what a release describes as “an epic outdoor block party that connects Lexington Market to Park Avenue, spanning the city’s intertwined communities of color.”
The evening will feature musical performers—the Baltimore Dance Crews Project and traditional Korean drummers Washington Samulnori among them—along with a host of hometown Asian food purveyors, storytellers, an artist and craft market, a sake, soju and beer garden manned by Phil Han of Dooby’s, and more.
The fenced-off, open green space in the 200 block of Park Avenue will serve as the epicenter for the market. The Downtown Partnership of Baltimore is serving as the event’s chief sponsor.
The Chinatown Collective, a group of Asian-American and Pacific Islander merchants and organizers, has spearheaded the planning. Lead organizer Stephanie Hsu, formerly marketing and events director at R. House, said various initiatives were held over the last century to bring back Chinatown and expand it to a “more inclusive pan-Asian area.”
In particular, she singled out the mission of longtime Chinatown residents Kitty Chinn and her late husband, Calvin, during the 1970s to make it “a landing pad for the growing Korean and Vietnamese and Filipino communities at the time.” She said “this initiative is kind of picking up where they left off.”
Baltimore stands to benefit from the potential tourist draw of its own Chinatown, as other cities have, said Han.
“The livelihood and the culture of those neighborhoods is really awesome to see.”
While the old Chinese cultural district—as well as what Han calls Station North’s “kind of nonexistent” Little Korea—have withered away over time, the restaurateur pointed to a recent “significant increase” in local demand for Asian cuisine as a driving force being initiatives to bring them back.
“I think the biggest challenge is that we haven’t had a big presence of Asian food here in town until the past couple years,” Han said.
One can now head to Mount Vernon, Station North, Fells Point and other popular neighborhoods for cuisine ranging from ramen and bibimbap to dumplings and banh mi. Standouts such as Fells Point’s inventive steamed bun shop Ekiben, frozen dessert stall Mochichi and the refugee-owned co-op Mera Kitchen Collective will all be present at the night market next month.
Hsu noted vendor participation won’t be limited to Asian makers, as artisans and entrepreneurs from the city’s creative community will also be involved.
“It’s something that’s very inherently Baltimore—it’s part of both worlds,” she said. “This night market is kind of an excuse to get everybody all together at one place and time.”
But there will be clear signs of the event’s focus. Hsu mentioned a lantern walk down Lexington Street, “signifying and creating a place in a way that gives people the idea that, Oh, this used to be a Chinatown.”
Han, who’s known Hsu personally for a couple years, said the night market “is something that we’ve always talked about as, this should definitely happen.” The event she’s helped assemble is “incredible,” he says, “to bring this many people together.”
4-11 p.m., Sept. 22, 200 Park Ave., Facebook event. Tickets free, RSVP required.
This story has been updated.
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