Despite its clean monument, Mount Vernon looks seedy and tired

JACQUES KELLY

December 07, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

A burst of publicity surrounded the reopening of the Washington Monument as a public museum and tourist attraction.

Now visitors can climb that agonizing flight of stairs and view the rooftops of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, a National Register of Historic Places district recognized for its preservation of fine old homes and churches.

But for all the recent cleaning and refurbishment of the four squares around the Washington Monument, the Mount Vernon neighborhood at large is in sad shape.

Baltimoreans have long had a deeply sentimental attachment to this part of the city. Most every doorway is an architectural treasure. There's a rich and diverse mix of art museums, restaurants and shops as well.

It is also a neighborhood of collective memory. Maybe it was a long ago Easter Monday dance at the old Alcazar Ballroom (now the School for the Arts), a wedding reception at the Hotel Belvedere or a World War II-era date at the Club Charles.

All these rosy recollections can't overcome the general seediness per

vading the district that ought to be one of the residential glories of Baltimore.

Real estate agents moan they can't sell the great residences of ** the 19th century merchant elite. Properties languish on the market for years.

It's a common sight to see evicted tenants' furnishings dumped on blocks of St. Paul, Monument, Eager and Calvert streets and Park Avenue.

Long-time residents complain that the neighborhood has become a second home to transvestites and prostitutes, and that panhandling and begging are at an all-time high.

Over the past decade, the well-intending church committees have doled out food so that now Mount Vernon has a reputation on the street as being a light-touch zone for successful begging.

Unfortunately, all this street begging concentrated in a fairly small area has its negative side. Parishioners at the Basilica of the Assumption on Cathedral Street do not enjoy being hassled by those who patronize Our Daily Bread, the free-meal center next door.

While there are scattered examples of beautifully maintained private homes and apartments, the general character of the neighborhood is tired. It seems to hold on, but without much confidence or self-esteem.

Many working-class streets in South Baltimore are in better shape today than the one-time best addresses of Mount Vernon.

But South Baltimore and Federal Hill sit alongside the Inner Harbor. For more than two decades, city, state and federal dollars, as well as a large pot of private money, have gone into rebuilding the area around Pratt and Light streets.

Mount Vernon, a dozen blocks northward, never enjoyed much of the Inner Harbor's rub-off. The money that was poured into the new downtown has not traveled well, certainly not up Calvert, St. Paul, Charles or Cathedral streets.

It would be wrong to say that Mount Vernon has been neglected. Millions of dollars have been directed into the neighborhood in the past 15 years. Many one-time eyesores have been transformed.

The old Mount Royal Hotel is now the International House apartments. New residents are moving into Waterloo Place at Calvert and Centre streets. Pennsylvania Station is one of the cleanest and most attractive in Amtrak and Maryland commuting service. The University of Baltimore has become a major force at Charles and Mount Royal. The renovated Walters Art Gallery is resplendent.

Throughout the 1970s, Mount Vernon held an annual Holly Tour in early December. Residents proudly showed off their homes. Church committees piled old altars with greens and candles while choirs and orchestras did seasonal favorites.

It was a small measure. Maybe 1,200 or 1,500 people walked the streets that day. But it established a spirit and confidence that's depressingly missing today.

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