The former Pak 'N' Save on the corner of East Third and Race streets is trying to play a critical role in the redevelopment of Lexington's East End neighborhood.
A new, brightly colored mural on the side of the building, painted by East End resident Sundiata Rashid, and the addition of farm-fresh produce on the shelves herald some of the changes. The parking lot could be repaved some time next year.
Lexington Market East End owner Monjur Morshed, 55, says he hopes his newly remodeled convenience store will change its image and spark change in the community.
"As a store owner I feel like I'm doing a good thing," said Morshed. "It's good for the business and the neighborhood."
For the past 30 years, the market, nestled in the Third Street corridor, has been the backdrop for fights, shootings that grabbed headlines in 2004 and 2009, and dice games. It has been a hangout for vagrants, drug dealers and prostitutes.
That image is one Morshed, community activists and residents want to disappear.
"It was a little dangerous," said Morshed, who bought the corner market in 2005. "A lot of police cars were around here, but slowly, the last years have been better. Before it was one way, now we are trying to do something more."
Some of that change can be seen down the street from the market, which was once in walking distance from the former Bluegrass-Aspendale Housing Projects, an 80-acre housing project that was synonymous with crime and poverty in Lexington. The area is now peppered with single-family homes with neatly manicured lawns and sprinklers.
"I know what people mean when they say it's a bad area," said Andrea James, former first district councilwoman. "When I look at it, it's a place that can go either way. If there's enough support towards the positive, it can be very vibrant. If not, it can go down hill."
The East End once flourished as an entertainment epicenter. Acts such as Duke Ellington and Ray Charles would perform at the Lyric Theatre, which was built in 1948 and closed in 1963. The theater underwent a $6 million renovation and reopened in 2010, and it now features programming such as the August Poverty Forum, an event designed to facilitate a community conversation about poverty featuring keynote speaker Melissa Harris-Perry.
"The corners in the neighborhood can be anchors," said Chris Ford, 1st District councilman since 2011. East Third and Race "is significant because it sits on the corner of a once-thriving black neighborhood."
"Every street corner is very important," said Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. "It's a real opportunity there."
Despite the possibility of advancement, Billie Mallory, president of the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association, says there is more that needs to be done.
"The lack of affordable housing and jobs. We are a community attempting to figure out where we're going," Mallory said.
In 2008, developer Edward Holmes presented to the community an area plan that included more street lights; an infrastructure plan covering sidewalks, streets, and sewers; and more affordable housing.
Unfortunately, those plans have stalled, Mallory said. "There has just been a lack of funding. I guess it was a lot of dreams put into the project. It is a bit disappointing."
Ford said community leaders are trying to continue economic development, but "we still have a long way to go."
As for Morshed's market, its transformation was inspired by the Good Neighbor Project, an initiative sparked by the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition, which helps local and small stores add healthy items.
Through the program, Tweens has worked with Lexington Market and another East End store, Sammy's Grocery & Deli, at 564 Breckenridge Street.
"We did two years of listening to residents, store owners, wholesalers and community leaders to really understand these stores and what role they play within the community," said Anita Courtney, chairperson of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Program.
Courtney said residents wanted healthier food options, and they wanted to see a complete change in appearance, community engagement and cleanliness.
In an effort to meet demands, Morshed visited several stores throughout the state that made similar transformations. "As a store owner, I feel like I'm doing a good thing adding healthy food for my customers ... for a long time this store had no healthy food," he said.
The lack of transportation and means to shop at grocery stores made the East End a "food desert," James said.
James said the Lexington Market helps combat the obesity issue in the community, and more.
"Its not only about healthy stores ... this is just adding to the vibrancy," said James.
Part of that vibrancy includes Rashid's mural, which features local black leaders, such as Isaac Murphy and William Wells Brown, and landmarks, including the Charles Young Center. The opposite side will display faces of six children who currently live in the East End and attend William Wells Brown Elementary.
The mural's unveiling is scheduled for Oct. 19.
Henry Smoot, 78, who owns Smoot's Garage on Race Street and has been an East End resident for 50 years, hopes the efforts to change the store's image won't go unnoticed.
"It upgraded the community," said Smoot. "I just hope it makes things better and makes people realize what the community is trying to do."
Joyce Wright, a decade-long resident, expressed similar thoughts.
"It's for the best," said Wright, who works a block away from the market at Family Dollar on the corner of Fourth and Race streets. "People have been used to a certain way of living, but the old way is gone."
Justin Madden: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.