Mid-morning on Avenue D at the Reading Terminal Market: Purveyors race wobbly handcarts as if they were Roman chariots, easily overtaking the lumbering forklifts. Stock assistants execute quick do-si-dos to avoid the barrage of wheeled traffic, doing their dance with trays of Liscio's rolls balanced on their shoulders and, sometimes, heads. And all the while, the shoeshine men at Papa Doc's place continue their metronomic passes with brush and cloth, oblivious to the surrounding maelstrom.
No one would ever confuse the terminal with a food court, and least of all its Avenue D, the de facto service aisle on the market's eastern flank, next to the alley loading dock. This is where every side of grass-fed beef, every sheaf of fragrant lemongrass, every luscious, paper-swaddled pint of figs enters the market before being directed to a cold storage box or a vendor's food stall. One reason the 119-year-old terminal remains a working market is that Avenue D serves as a vital link in the supply chain, between the delivery trucks and the vendors.
But even hardworking icons have to adapt to modern times, and so it goes with Avenue D. The terminal's management is preparing, ever so gingerly, to renovate its eastern edge, transforming the space from back-of-house support to front-row star.
The $2.7 million project, which is expected to get final approval this month from the Historical Commission, will banish the avenue's battered walk-in refrigerators and double-parked forklifts to the basement, freeing the corridor for more food stalls, a test kitchen, lecture room, and - trumpets, please - new, larger restrooms.
That's not all. The market's central watering hole, the Beer Garden, has just been sold to Iovine Brothers Produce, along the market's southern wall (at the corner of Second Avenue and Avenue C). They plan to raze the tenebrous cave and rebuild it as an airy, Irish-inflected gastropub called Molly Malloy, after the brothers' mother. If the gods at the Liquor Control Board smile on the project, the Iovines could be pouring drafts of PENNdemonium beer and serving braised oxtail sandwiches with carrot ketchup by April.
The last time anyone tried to glam up the historic market, it was 1993 and the adjoining Convention Center had just made its debut on Arch Street. The market got heat and air-conditioning for the first time, oven vents, and all new stalls. Fortunately, it didn't take long for the old place to regain its patina of clutter.
General manager Paul Steinke promises not to tinker too much with Avenue D's atmosphere in the new renovation, which is being overseen by Friday Architects' Anthony Bracali. The familiar thickset steel columns, the wood-ribbed ceiling and rough stone walls will remain virtually untouched - as will the Rube Goldberg arrangement of overhead ventilation ducts that snake every which way.
But the alignment of Avenue D will change significantly, along with its use. It will be made to run straight through the market on a north-south course from the Filbert Street door, rather than jog around the cold storage boxes and other impediments, as it does now. And in the process, it will become more like the other avenues in the market's interior street grid.
The realignment entails moving a couple of the market's old dependables, the Shoe Doctor and Miscellanea Libri, currently squeezed into the gaps between fridges. The Flying Monkey Patisserie also gets shifted slightly. About 40 businesses are now vying for the five new stalls that will be added to the existing group of 78.
Many people think of Avenue D as "the back of the market," Steinke says. The intention is to make it a focal point by relocating the market's demonstration kitchen to a spot just off the central court seating area. The court itself will be extended to the back wall.
That new seating area has been designed so the market's management can section it off with glass doors as a lecture space for the test kitchen, which will be used almost like a theater. It's being named the Rick Nichols Room, in honor of the Inquirer writer who retired last week after 15 years of lovingly chronicling the region's food culture. Meanwhile, the new pub will open its door directly onto center court.
For some, however, the highlight of the project will surely be the new restrooms at the north end of Avenue D. Like parts of the murky service aisle, the existing facilities always have been a little too authentic. A tight squeeze, too. The women's room, especially, is famous for its long lines on busy shopping days. The market plans to double the number of toilets in both restrooms. (Women get 16, men 10.)
It's easy to see the reorganization as part of an inexorable march of progress that will eventually scrub the market of its grit, some of which probably dates to the days when the Reading Railroad deposited commuters overhead in its terminal. But the food hall survives as a functioning institution only so long as it responds to a changing clientele and its tastes.
Today, shoppers are more likely to be a mix of Center City foodies interested in fresh, local meats and produce; hungry tourists; and low-income residents dependent on food stamps, which the market accepts in large quantities. Thanks to the loyal patronage of this unlikely alliance, the market has seen a 27 percent increase in shoppers since 2003. The renovation offers something for each of them.
Yes, the changes to Avenue D will push some of the picturesque work of satisfying them out of sight. But the more important thing is that the work goes on, so the Reading Terminal Market can continue to feed the city.
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or email@example.com.