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Eastern Market Neighbors Lend Support

Now that the fire is out and the shock has faded, Capitol Hill residents are quickly devising ways to support those longtime vendors whose livelihoods were devastated when Eastern Market was enveloped in flames early Monday morning.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells already have promised to restore the historic market to its former glory. But the residents who have lived side by side with the market’s vendors — sharing family news, buying groceries and eating lunch there for decades — are picking up the tab to keep their friends afloat.

The Capitol Hill Community Foundation has set up a fund for the 14 vendors that worked inside the now-gutted South Hall.

“The community feels very close to these people,” said CHCF President Nicky Cymrot. “We are taking it that the bricks and mortar funds will be forthcoming from the government.”

Cymrot said she expects to raise substantial funds. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society kicked it off with a $10,000 donation, and one donor has offered $25,000, she said. Online contributions already add up to $14,000, and tonight, the Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals is holding a fundraiser at Marty’s (527 Eighth St. SE) from 6 to 8 p.m.

The vendors are a “very fragile and very important” part of the market, said Dick Wolf, president of the restoration society.

“Our association with Eastern Market is long and deep and it is just an essential part of where we have gone in terms of preservation,” he said. “It’s important not just as a building but as a central part of the community.”

The details of how the money will be distributed has not been determined, Cymrot said.

“The first chore is to do some thoughtful, quiet discussions,” she said. “What we want to be sure happens is [that] those people move back into that space.”

Some vendors are luckier than others. Those who set up shops outside — typically stocked with art and vegetables — will be back on the street this weekend, spreading across a closed Seventh Street Southeast. The annual Eastern Market day will go on as planned on Sunday.

But getting back into business could be a long haul for the 14 vendors that had shops in South Hall. The hall served as a neighborhood grocery and provided meats and cheeses that can’t be sold in the hot outdoors.

“The core function of the market is to be week-long, open every day,” said Richard Glasgow, an indoor vendor who owns Southern Maryland Seafood with his brother. “It’s a public service, like a library. So many residents here use us for food — not for earrings, but for meat and fish.”

He added: “The public service component is the part that’s destroyed. The only thing the tourists want to buy is prepared food; it’s the community people who value us.”

At a Tuesday morning press conference, Fenty said he is looking into temporary venues in the city for vendors like Glasgow, but he wouldn’t name the possible sites.

The indoor market will be “restored 100 percent to its architectural splendor,” he said, with a target completion date of 18-24 months and at a cost of $20 million to $30 million. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) also has said she will try to secure federal funds to help preserve the structure, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) pledged his support as chairman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. In the meantime, indoor vendors won’t have to pay rent or their quarterly sales tax payments, due May 15.

Although officials initially thought the fire started in a dumpster, possibly by arson, acting Fire Chief Dennis Rubin said Tuesday that had been ruled out. With “95 percent certainty,” he said, the culprit was an electrical short.

Making matters worse, the building did not have a sprinkler system because they were not mandated when the market was built in 1873.

At the Tuesday press conference, Wells pointed proudly to a sign that read, “Eastern Market — ‘We Will Rebuild.’”

“The ink is still wet on that sign,” Wells said. “Grass will not grow under our feet” as the market is rebuilt.

To donate to the fund for the market vendors, visit www.capitolhillcommunityfoundation.org.

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