Retiree points out city's charms


July 06, 1993|By Karen L. Zeiler | Karen L. Zeiler,Contributing Writer

Marvin B. Solomon has voluntarily spent more than 2,000 hours over the past seven years dispensing advice, brochures, maps and hospitality at the Inner Harbor's tourist information booth. And in his lifetime, he has watched Baltimore's "basin" evolve into a bustling collection of museums and attractions.

The 72-year-old retiree is part of Baltimore's "urban renaissance," a catch phrase popularized by city planners across the country when Harborplace opened 13 years ago.

On Mondays and Thursdays, you'll find Mr. Solomon in the pink-and-blue Visitors Center, between Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion and the Maryland Science Center. The volunteers who staff the Visitors Center see between 500 and 1,000 people a day in the summer season. On holiday weekends, additional volunteers are dispatched to handle the numbers, which can surge to as many as 3,000 people a day.

QUESTION: What was Baltimore like before its "urban renaissance"?

ANSWER: Railroad tracks ran down Pratt Street, the Fish Market was a fish market, and banana boats were docked all along the waterfront.

The intersection of Pratt and Light streets was the busiest in the city. [Former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor] Theodore McKeldin's brother, who was a policeman, used to direct traffic from atop a horse without a whistle -- he used his fingers to whistle instead.

While I was in college, I worked at a wholesale vegetable market where the Brokerage is today [on Market Place], inspecting vegetables for insect infestation. The area certainly was not a tourist area.

Later, when I was in the Navy, I'd take the old Bay Lines from Baltimore to Norfolk. For 35 years I ran an employment agency downtown that provided manpower for the tugs and barges in the Baltimore and Delaware harbors. I also supplied farm help to the Eastern Shore and Delaware.

Q: What began to lure tourists to the area?

A: The Constellation was the first attraction to come into the area in 1969. But the renaissance for Baltimore really began in 1959 with the Charles Center renewal. In 1963, Mayor McKeldin set up the impetus for the Inner Harbor. The Charles Center was the beginning.

Bond issues provided the financial backing and the voters approved the project in 1964.

Q: What do you recommend to visitors in the way of sightseeing in Baltimore?

A: To acclimate themselves to the area and learn a little about the city's history, I send them to the top of the World Trade Center first. It's the tallest five-sided building in the world and offers a spectacular view and a lot of historical background.

Another good way to start out is to take the trolley tour, which will introduce you to the major sights and points of interest. Both are excellent ways to see Baltimore.

Q: What are people looking for?

A: People are into shopping, especially the ladies. But many want to discover the history that's here. We get a lot of interest in Fort McHenry from out-of-towners.

Q: What effect has Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- now in its second year -- had on Baltimore?

A: It has been an incredible draw. The new stadium has brought so many more hundreds of people to the area from all over the country, which means more business for the restaurants and other attractions. A perfect example is the Babe Ruth Museum [two blocks northwest of the stadium at 216 Emory St.], which has really taken off.

Q: Is there an attraction most Baltimoreans don't know about, but should?

A: If people are looking for something different, off the beaten track, so to speak, I send them to the Peabody Library [17 E. Mount Vernon Place].

Many do their own walking tours of Mount Vernon; I'll tell them not to overlook the library, a six-story building with tiered wrought-iron railings. That library has one of the best rare-book collections in the country.

Q: The Six Flags Corp. abandoned the Power Plant in 1989 when its amusement center and nightclub suffered low attendance and financial losses. It's to be replaced by the Sports Center USA, which is being promoted as the country's first multisport museum and entertainment center. Of what you know about tourists and what you've heard, is that apt to fare better?

A: The Power Plant has been a white elephant. But the Sports Center project should go over well -- as long as it is affordable.

Q: Do you find there is a limit as to how much people are willing to spend?

A: Many people come in and ask, "What's free?" because they have children and it's costly for them. I think price makes a difference with any family when they go on vacation. Many people who come here have already been to Washington. All the museums there are free because, as taxpayers, we are paying for it. Then they come to Baltimore and find out everything here isn't free.

Q: What makes Baltimore's Harborplace different from other colorful marketplaces that have sprung up in other cities over the past 17 years?

A: The water ends right downtown. You won't find this in Boston or Philadelphia. They tried to duplicate it, but nowhere is it as attractive as it is here. A family from Boston was here a few weeks ago for an Orioles game and were saying how our stadium puts theirs to shame. . . . Very seldom do we get negative comments.

Q: When you do, what are they?

A: Parking. The coin machine around the corner often breaks down and people get frustrated when they can't get change to park. People also get angry if they've made a wrong turn coming into the city. We'll get yelled at only because they have to get their frustrations out. Since we are often the first people they meet, it is important that we smile and put them in a good mood.

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