The street corner where Baltimore once shopped

January 11, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

A thought came to me a few weeks ago while downing a mid-afternoon cup of coffee at the Gallery at Pratt and Calvert streets.

It was just before Christmas. All afternoon I had been running into old friends shopping in downtown Baltimore. In this most nostalgic of seasons, we got to talking about Baltimore and the Inner Harbor retail district.

We looked around as people carried plastic trays of hot beverages and snacks to little tables that overlooked the Patapsco. There was even a sprinkle of light snow. It was an urban planner's ideal of what a revitalized city should look like.

Our group was all old enough to recall the department store days of Howard and Lexington streets that died in the 1980s. We looked around at the sanitized harbor area, the winter weather scene, the busy gallery and said, almost in unison, "Give us back Howard and Lexington."

Maybe we should have been consigned to the ward of an institution where they house patients with terminal nostalgia.

But on a cold winter Saturday, I still get separation anxiety for the thriving metropolitan crossroads of city life. I'm sorry, Baltimore's harbor is fine as a kind of urban Ocean City; it's for casual time-wasting, weekend meandering.

What I miss is a downtown with competing department stores and a dozens of other enterprises clustered nearby. It has been exactly 25 years since Baltimore began the process of clearing the harbor for redevelopment. In that time, we surrendered Howard and Lexington. We got a playtime harbor and gave up a working downtown.

It is hard to sort out what were just the pleasant memories of Saturday afternoons of 30 years ago, when four big-league department stores (Hutzler Brothers, Hochschild Kohn, Hecht Co. and Stewart's) vied for your patronage.

The stores never bothered with plate glass windows overlooking the water; they were not interested in recreational shopping. Mention the term festival marketplace to an old-fashioned, downtown merchant and he would have directed you to the Flower Mart on Mount Vernon Place and said wait until the first Wednesday in May.

Part of the tears shed for the old, downtown retail establishments are for their sheer size and scale. When you went into one of these huge department stores, you could buy everything from a lead pencil to a mink coat.

And, of course, the stores had their own fully developed personalities. They were Baltimore stores run by Baltimore executives with Baltimore merchandise buyers filling the shelves. By contrast, the Inner Harbor's retail outlets are largely owned by national chains.

Why is it nearly 22 years after Hutzler's Quixie Restaurant closed that its loyal patrons still recall its fixed-price lunches of chicken salad and coffee chiffon pie or Wellesley fudge cake? That's quite a testament to a place where the tab for lunch was about $1.50 in 1972.

What Baltimore lost in its ailing downtown shopping district was personality. The Inner Harbor may be spotlessly clean and filled with shops recognized from Maine to Hawaii, but it could be anywhere.

I guess 30 years ago Baltimore never realized what we had with all the big and little stores, a thriving Lexington Market and a handful of first-run downtown movie houses.

There were also service shops where you could get a pair of scissors sharpened, have a hat cleaned and blocked, or a pocket watch repaired. Some of these places were holes in the wall up three flights of stairs, but they were the establishments that gave the heart of the city its diversity.

These old downtowns also seemed to have jobs for everyone.

This strong city center also made for a robust collection of people. There seemed to be a greater economic and racial mix of rich, poor and in between. By contrast, the Inner Harbor's casual strollers all appear to have been turned out of the pages of the same catalog of middle-class, suburban America. People who do not fit into this pattern seem unwelcome and out of place.

The old Howard Street scene was anything but predetermined. Crazies, bag ladies and society matrons all mixed together on the same sidewalk. Today, should that combination enter our highly patrolled, enclosed downtown shopping malls, someone would call a security guard and ask that the undesirable be removed.

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