In downtown Baltimore they roll up the sidewalks

Eric Hubler

September 06, 1991|By Eric Hubler

WHEN work brought me to Baltimore from New York for a several-month stint, I picked an apartment as a New Yorker would pick one. To a New Yorker, convenience ranks above comfort; walking to work is more important than being able to barbecue in the back yard. I rented a place within saluting distance of the Washington Monument, about as "downtown" as you can get in Baltimore.

I was excited to have found the closest thing in Baltimore to a New York neighborhood. Not just work was within walking distance. So were a jazz bar, three Japanese restaurants, Penn Station, Kinko's Copies, a movie theater and a greasy spoon serving wonderfully viscous gyros.

And yet, the first piece of advice my landlady had for me was not a restaurant pick, but a warning. "It's more dangerous on the street at night here than in New York," she said.

Having recently been robbed at gunpoint in Fun City, I was not mentally prepared for the news that Charm City offered equal -- or, as my landlady claimed, worse -- hazards.

"In New York," she continued, "it's safer because there are always people on the street, even at 2 a.m. Here, an evil element takes over."

I had always considered the presence of people on the street, not their absence, to be a source of potential danger. But of course, the opposite is true. There is safety in numbers.

My neighbor, an architect with an almost religious commitment to downtown living, explained that Baltimore has had a love-hate relationship with street life. To her, the history of Baltimore is BIH and AIH: before the Inner Harbor redevelopment and after the Inner Harbor redevelopment.

Before redevelopment, the street was considered a scary, ugly place, and architects did all they could to shield citizens from it. This explained why, when I needed a stamp in my passport, I walked around and around the Federal Building but could not find the door. The building snubs the street. It must be reached by climbing a double flight of stairs, and the door faces a courtyard, 180 degrees from the street.

In snubbing the street, the building also snubs the people. Courtyards have always been places of privacy, places for wealthy homeowners to plant gardens or let their children play, guarded from the filth (both particulate and human) on the street. Only a city that expects a large portion of its citizens to be filthy, to be unworthy of giving or receiving government services, could contemplate hiding the entrance to a public building.

After redevelopment, all this was suddenly considered a terrible mistake. The Light Street and Pratt Street pavilions are models of openness and interaction. Although only a few blocks from the Federal Building, the area gives its users an entirely different message. It is almost impossible not to feel at ease, and to feel a commonality of purpose with all the other people there.

The Inner Harbor wants me; the Federal Building couldn't care less about me. The Inner Harbor is the welcoming city of Oz; the Federal Building is the Wizard's threatening throne room.

Except for Fells Point, it seems the rest of Baltimore has never really caught up to the Inner Harbor in terms of reawakening a sense of public commerce. The five blocks of Charles Street between my office and my apartment are rife with opportunities to separate me from my money. Yet, most of the stores close at the stroke of 5, and I walk home past locked doors: a sandwich shop I've wanted to try for four months, a stationer whose window display I like, a clothing store I wouldn't mind browsing. The jazz bar, I was devastated to learn, only offers music a few nights a week, and always the same band.

You snooze, you lose, and these merchants lose untold foot traffic every day.

But then, Baltimore cares more for auto traffic than foot traffic. This is what my landlady meant by warning me against walking late at night. Since there's almost nothing to walk to, anyone who can avoid walking, does.

I hope this changes. Nothing is more civilized and economically hopeful than a row of shops with their doors open and lights burning, welcoming the after-work crowd. I would like to be able to go for a stroll in the evening without feeling like a trespasser or a target.

A prosperous, safe and community-oriented downtown is not the mayor's responsibility or the Rouse Company's responsibility; it is the shared responsibility of all merchants and consumers.

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