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London's Covent Garden has its face lifted

London planners have done for shabby Covent Garden what Prof. Henry Higgins did for Eliza Doolittle: turned her into a society lady. Covent Garden is where the mythical hero of "My Fair Lady" found Eliza Doolittle selling flowers. He dusted her off, banished her cockney accent, and transformed her into an elegant Londoner.

This is nearly what the Greater London Council (GLC) has done to the 150 -year-old district. Abandoned in 1974, when London's fruit and vegetable wholesalers fled across the Thames to more commodious quarters at Nine Elms in Wandsworth, the building has been refitted as a cluster of 40 small shops. Now it holds artsy-elegant dealers in pottery, candles, doll houses, natural cosmetics, and fashion knitwear.

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The transformation was not easy. The market, a series of four parallel halls and courtyards under Victorian cast- iron and glass roofs, was awash with rubbish and cluttered with jerry-built additions. It had been bombed during the war. Its roof supports were damaged. And it was underpinned by what one GLC spokesman called "a rabbit warren of brick cellars" -- low, vaulted arches used for ripening bananas. Some of them contained more than a century's accumulation of cobwebs, often in masses six or seven feet thick.

But renovation projects like Boston's Quincy Market were, says the spokesman, "an inspiration," proving that shopkeepers would rush in where banana vendors no longer cared to tread. The idea was simple: Refurbish the upper floors, sink several courtyards allowing access to the intriguing catacombs, combine the units into various- sized accommodations, and rent them out to well-established entrepreneurs.

Now, six years and L4 million ($9.2 million) later, the new market is an appealing and airy place, protected from London's unpredictable rains and set about with decorative wheelbarrows of flowers, old lamp fixtures, and plenty of cream and plum paint.

It is also set about with rules. "We're up against a terrible lot of bureaucracy," Daphne Swann of Cranks vegetarian restaurant says with a smile. But she hastens to add that she agrees with the rules and has "no complaints." Everything, down to the graphics allowed in shop signs, is regulated to provide consistent design. The shops must agree to stay open evenings until 8 o'clock -- which, in London, is something of a breakthrough, especially for the theatergoers trying to fill the hours between teatime and curtain time.

The 40 shopkeepers -- selected from some 1,000 applicants -- must also agree not to sell tourist souvenirs or denim clothing. Such things, says the GLC, are not appropriate for "a prestigious specialist shopping and restaurant center."

Some members of the surrounding community are miffed by that highbrow tone. A group of citizens milled about outside the opening-day ceremonies June 19 protesting that the GLC was driving out local tradesman and low- income residents with its fancy market renovation.

But artisans like Jennifer Johnson are delighted. She makes brightly enameled wooden brooches and boxes in her studio in nearby Barnes. Every Friday she rents a tiny stall -- one of dozens of Victorian cast-iron trading stands set up on the flagstone pavement -- for L7.50 (about $17) a day, joining other craftsmen in a high-class flea- market trade in small, portable items.

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At the opening ceremony, Sir Horace Cutler, leader of the GLC, said that all this bustle should make the market "as famous throughout the world as the Tower [of London], Buckingham Palace, the houses of Parliament, or 10 Downing Street."

"That's pushing it a bit," muttered a voice in the crowd.

But the crowds pushing into the shops the next day seemed to suggest that if Professor Higgins could present a flower seller to the Queen, Sir Horace just might present her marketplace to the world.

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