A great town in spite of ourselves

Baltimore Glimpses

May 26, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

ORIOLE PARK at Camden Yards continues to draw well-deserved praise for itself and for the city that seemingly made it all happen.

We can only hope this shower of sparkling compliments hasn't given the impression the city is on a building high -- for a stadium, roadways, an Inner Harbor complex and light rail, one on top of the other and all coming about in some kind of glorious civic consensus. Consensus it ain't been.

If you look at the history of our civic life, it's apparent that almost nothing we have built over the last 40 years enjoyed popular support at its inception. On the contrary, everything's been a fight. The facts are that Baltimore has been pulled kicking and screaming through its public projects, right down to the new stadium.

Take the National Aquarium. When now-Gov. William Donald Schaefer first introduced the idea in the early 1970s, it was greeted with a firestorm of derision. The late City Councilman Emerson Julian, speaking for a considerable and vocal part of the community, angrily remarked, "We're talking about a fish tank!"

The bitterly contested issue was put on the ballot in 1976 -- and won by only 18,000 votes.

The Bay Bridge is another example. The idea was on the state's agenda for 50 years -- and got nowhere. The most boisterous resistance came from the part of the state that ultimately would profit most from the bridge -- the Eastern Shore. Finally, in October 1949, the State Roads Commission announced it would begin construction.

All hell broke loose.

Where would the bridge be built? Sandy Point to Matapeake? Kent Island? Millers Island to Tolchester? Vested interests quickly launched a massive tug-of-war.

And the predictions!

Capt. James Corkin, a retired captain of bay vessels, snapped, "Just let the bay ice up good the way it used to and that bridge will be mowed down like a blade of grass!"

A prominent citizen remarked, "It will turn the Eastern Shore into a Coney Island." Other voices predicted that the bridge would "kill all marine life in the bay."

Yet in no time at all the back-ups started and there was a cry for a second bridge. And this time citizens positively, absolutely didn't want it! They petitioned it to referendum -- and in November 1966 they formally rejected it.

So how come there's a second span up there?

Gov. Spiro Agnew, with the support of the General Assembly, got legislative approval for an "emergency measure" authorizing the State Roads Commission to choose among future crossings -- northern or southern bridges, a tunnel or a parallel bridge. Of course the commission chose the parallel bridge -- and the very span outlawed by Maryland voters opened on June 28, 1973.

What about all the celebration of Harborplace? Ironic. So many people were against it that a group called "Citizens to Improve Inner Harbor" was formed to kill the idea. The cries went up, "Don't put fancy sheds in the Inner Harbor!"

That issue, too, went to the voters. Harborplace won, but not by much. The vote was 59,045 for and 42,728 against.

Another project Baltimoreans didn't want in the worst way was the Beltway. When Gov. Millard Tawes began promoting the circular roadway in the early 1960s, neighborhood associations went berserk.

Ten associations met in anger and issued statements, one of which claimed: "The beltways are a threat to the good life." Citizens pledged to lie in front of the bulldozers. Now citizens sit on the roadway in daily traffic jams.

It cannot be said that popular consensus powered us to build the aquarium, the bay bridges, Harborplace or the Beltway. But they sure got built, didn't they?

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