Hands off Howard Street

November 23, 1994|By Robin Miller

DAVID, a metal sculptor who lives and works in a downtown loft near Howard Street, has heard about the city's plans to buy a block of Howard Street and turn the buildings into trendy lofts for artists.

"Who are they kidding?" David asks. "There are plenty of artists living in lofts around here already. If the city starts rehabbing lofts, rents will go up and the artists will be forced out."

Mayor Kurt Schmoke's "Lofts for Artists" plan for the 400 block of Howard Street is just the latest hair-brained idea designed to "save" Howard Street, which was once known for its stellar department stores. Most of those stores either died or packed up and followed a big chunk of their customers to the suburbs.

Today's Howard Street corridor may not be pretty, but it is thriving.

This neighborhood is Baltimore's commercial future. It shouldn't be changed in any way.

In the Howard Street area, artists such as David are living in lofts side-by-side with the hip-hop music shops, Chinese take-outs and fried chicken joints.

A big attraction for the businesses and the artists are the cheap rents. Local artists fear that the city's plan to create a smaller version of New York's SoHo area on Howard Street may drive rents up and drive artists out.

David pays $450 a month in rent for a fifth-floor loft that has paint peeling from the walls and lacks heat and an elevator. However, it does have a spectacular view.

David shares the place with another artist. The loft appears to be nearly as big as a football field with 18-foot ceilings.

Typically, Howard Street-area loft residents install their own plumbing fixtures. The lofts, for the most part, are old industrial spaces not zoned for residential use. So living in one is illegal. That's why David did not want his full name used for this article. But artists who choose such lofts do so because they need the large, cheap spaces to work on their art -- typically huge abstract pieces that can't be created in the average home. The city's plan won't help artists such as David find alternative sites to live and work.

"They'll have to import rich artists from someplace" for the planned renovated lofts, David said. "But rich artists wouldn't want to live here -- too many gunfights at night. Too many problems. No parking. I live here because I have a lot of space and it's cheap. If it stops being cheap, I'll have to move."

Artists aren't the only ones who benefit from the cheap rents.

A stroll down Howard Street today is a tour of a multiethnic business community serving people of low and moderate incomes. African art and Afrocentric accessories -- shunned by most of the malls -- are displayed in dozens of store windows and are hawked by street vendors. Korean store owners sell $1 costume earrings and $2 necklaces to well-dressed office workers and unemployed people with equal fervor. Tapes and CDs by recording artists whose work will never find a place in mall record stores find a ready market here, as do articles of clothing that major chains don't carry.

Anyone who doubts the vitality of Baltimore's home-grown, small-business community should spend a Saturday morning at the corner of Eutaw and Saratoga streets. Cabs drop off carloads of eager shoppers from all over the city. Old friends meet and discuss bargains to be found in the area.

Teen-agers meet, chat, flirt and spend their money on such items as ice cream cones and T-shirts bearing the names of popular rap groups and sports figures.

Walk along Howard or Eutaw streets with some long-time Baltimore residents and you'll hear moans of how the street was once the heart of the city, and that it hasn't been the same since Hutzler's and Hecht's and the other upscale department stores went away. To the women who once bought designer gowns in such establishments, the current retail environment is too declasse for words. But the city has changed and today's merchants are giving current city residents what they want, the way they want it, at prices they can afford.

Most of the current crop of Howard Street merchants aren't white or college educated or well-financed, and few have any good contacts in city hall or Annapolis. This does not make them any less worthwhile than the merchants of yesteryear. In fact, they're following in the great tradition of this country's great retailers. Some of the major retail chains got their start as pushcart businesses or mom-and-pop stores.

Like the Baltimore merchants of the past, today's breed can best be served by being left alone to succeed or fail on their own merits. We have, through inaction and by accident, created an informal business and arts incubator open to people who otherwise probably wouldn't have a chance to open their own businesses downtown.

If we're smart, we'll keep the Howard Street corridor just as it is now: a low-rent, centrally located commercial area full of small businesses and some artists who need huge, cheap spaces. Every city should have a downtown district like this. Baltimore is lucky enough to have one. It needs to be nurtured and preserved, not "revitalized" out of existence.

Robin Miller is a Baltimore taxi driver.

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