It is a cool Thursday evening, and jazz flutist Sonny Fortune launches a Thursday evening concert series in Center Plaza. City folks listen to his combo, share wine from a goatskin, drift contentedly across the square.
On the plaza outskirts, unobtrusively selling popcorn to benefit the homeless, is Laurie Schwartz. With the exception of colleagues and friends, no one grooving on Mr. Fortune's lovely rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon," can possibly know that it was she who envisioned the moribund plaza as a vibrant public space in the first place.
As integral to city life as they may seem, free concerts, First Thursdays gallery openings, outdoor cafes, a Charles Street chockablock with art spaces and restaurants, and a new "clean and safe" program financed by a commercial property surtax take painstaking planning and consensus-building among the disparate parties who share an interest in the city.
Such urban perks also require an advocate who will do everything, even sell popcorn, to make a project work.
For more than 10 years, Ms. Schwartz, as leader of the Charles Street Management Corp., and now as president of Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, has engineered the charming grace notes and amenities that enliven downtown Baltimore.
Members of the business community, as well as government and quasi-public officials who have devoted careers to revitalizing Baltimore, praise Ms. Schwartz' "statesmanlike quality," attention to detail, creativity and persistence.
She is "one of the most tenacious individuals I've ever come across in terms of pursuit of an objective," says Mark Pollak, a Piper & Marbury attorney who drafted legislation creating the 106-block Downtown Management District patrolled by "clean sweep ambassadors" and safety guides. "Once she has identified something that needs to be done, she will do everything within her power to get it done. If it means endless numbers of meetings, talking to hundreds of people in groups or on a one-by-one basis, she'll do it," Mr. Pollak says.
Sitting in a bright office in Downtown Partnership's new Charles Street headquarters, Ms. Schwartz, a petite woman with curly dark hair and lively, engaging eyes, chooses words carefully while discussing her evolving role in Baltimore's struggle for well-being.
Across the room, Downtown Partnership spokesman Brian Lewbart jots notes, occasionally interjecting to clarify a point or praise his boss -- carefully managed boosterism of projects as well as Ms. Schwartz herself is Downtown Partnership's stock-in-trade.
Her own notion of reward for a job well-done is not recognition, but more work. "I am personally always looking for the next
step," says Ms. Schwartz, who is 40. "Not the next step in my career, but what's the next plane I can rise to to learn and to become active in creating change or making a difference."
Ms. Schwartz' rising self-expectations have found an ideal match in Baltimore. As the city tumbles further from the fat and happy into an insidious recession, Downtown Partnership, a private, non-profit organization that works with property and business owners and public agencies, has taken on "a lot of issues that might not seem obvious to the downtown revitalization effort," Ms. Schwartz says.
Issues are interconnected
For example, "I never thought I would be looking into whether there are enough detox beds in Baltimore or not," she says. "Everything is larger than it seems and more connected to so many other issues than you might hope in the beginning."
Accordingly, Ms. Schwartz' job description has also expanded. "I don't consider myself a planner [so much] as a strategist and a problem-solver and a consensus-builder," she says.
As an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Ms. Schwartz majored in social policy. But she was uncertain where her interests would take her professionally until a professor "suggested I look at planning as a way to be able to make a difference," she says.
Ms. Schwartz arrived in Baltimore in 1973 to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work and Community Planning. It was a time of great promise for the city -- and for a future planner. Instead of being demolished, older neighborhoods were being rehabilitated, and the National Aquarium and Harborplace were thrilling glimmers in the city's eye.
A summer internship in the Housing and Community Development office led to a full-time job after Ms. Schwartz received her master's degree. Soon, she found herself working on the highly politicized disposition of condemned Fells Point homes spared after a controversial highway project was squelched.
Excited by the city
"I really got caught up in the excitement of Baltimore's renaissance. . . . I made a real conscious decision to stay, a year and half into it," she says. Under the city's "Best Proposal" program, Ms. Schwartz bought a house in Charles Village for $3,000 and restored it. "I knew I had found my home at least for a period of time."