Charles North Spruces Up

ANTERO PIETILA

June 05, 1993|By ANTERO PIETILA

To those old-time Baltimoreans who remember the original Chesapeake Restaurant and the luxury automobile showroom across from it, the 1700 block of North Charles Street may appear dead. The Chesapeake has been boarded up for years; the showroom is a laundromat.

Try this scruffy block at night, though. Art flicks at the Charles Theatre, dancing at the Depot, rubbernecking at John Waters at the Club Charles. Throw in a couple of after-hours spots and Gatsby's up the street -- which is currently expanding -- and you get the idea.

New ingredients are now being added to this eclectic mix.

Odessa Dunson and Barbara Lahnstein, known for the culinary wonders they have been selling at the 32nd Street Farmers Market for the past two years, have opened the Metropol Cafe and Gallery next to the Charles Theatre. (The space used to be occupied by the innovative BAUHouse arts center).

''We are trying to get a renaissance going here,'' Ms. Lahnstein ++ said the other day, looking over her cafe, which offers a full dinner menu Wednesday through Sunday.

Starting tonight, the gallery will present changing exhibits. The first show features Oriental themes by Pacita Abad, miniature boxes by D.S. Bakker, photography by Douglas Brown as well as paintings by Ephrem Kouakou and John Smith.

All are established artists. ''We want to bring together people who are in the middle of their careers,'' explains Ms. Lahnstein.

A few steps away, Kevin Brown and Bill Maughlin have transformed the former Maryland Library for the Blind into a 10,000-square-foot Nirvana ''cafetorium,'' consisting of a cafe (serving cold dishes only), gallery and 370-seat performance space.

''It's a new concept, something I ran into in Los Angeles. Our mission is to give novices -- first-time photographers, poets, artists -- a place to show,'' says Mr. Brown, whose New Metropolitan Theatre Company uses the stage.

Nirvana intends to stay open 24 hours a day on Fridays and Saturdays. Messrs. Brown and Maughlin are so convinced of their success they have signed a five-year lease.

Will these new spots thrive? Only time will tell. But these are clearly the most vigorous signs of life on this block since the Left Bank Jazz Society moved out of the Famous Ballroom and that one-time bowling alley went dark soon afterward.

While such nearby areas as Mount Royal and Koreatown have developed nicely in recent years, ''the growth has literally leapfrogged us,'' complains Alan Shecter, a major property owner.

Protracted construction is now going on around the neighboring Pennsylvania Station. Once it is over, the area that is alternately known as the Penn Station neighborhood or Charles North may finally get some benefits.

In the first stage, a garage for 550 cars is being built underneath the 1911 Beaux Arts classical edifice, which was painstakingly restored a decade ago. As part of the $9 million project, a grand plaza will be constructed to link the building and Charles and St. Paul streets.

The $18 million second stage will involve reconstruction of no fewer than five bridges around the station, including two ramps to the Jones Falls Expressway. ''I'm sure the construction period will be difficult. But we have a long-term view about this,'' Mr. Shecter said.

What keeps the area's real-estate speculators going is a conviction that one day -- perhaps even tomorrow -- Washingtonians will discover the the commercial stretch along Charles Street and the picturesque Victorian brick rowhouses along St. Paul and Calvert streets. Hope springs eternal.

Restoration is advancing gradually on residential streets. But Melvin Knight, a local real-estate agent, is enough of a realist to acknowledge that ''lots of things haven't gotten better'' and that ''lots of struggles, lots of challenges'' lie ahead.

Over the past few years, residents have had repeated battles with night spots they say attract large and unruly crowds. A truce of sorts prevails now that Odell's on North Avenue has been temporarily closed. But the issue may crop up again.

A major problem, according to Charles R. ''Dick'' Lloyd, is that no fewer than three police districts handle law-enforcement responsibilities in various sections of the area.

''I have a lot of heartburn with police districts splitting within a community,'' said Mr. Lloyd, who moved to the neighborhood in 1949.

G; Antero Pietila writes editorials for the Baltimore Sun.

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