WITH CHARLES Village's residents recent decision to pay extra property taxes to provide such services as security and street cleaning, Mount Vernon may be the next city neighborhood to take that route. Certainly many Mount Vernon residents are looking for ways to make their neighborhood more attractive.
However, those of us who are long-time Mount Vernon residents know that there are no quick-fix solutions to the area's problems. A special taxing district is just the latest proposal considered in a long struggle to make Mount Vernon a magnet for the middle class. In recent years there have been formal or informal proposals for the area ranging from improved garbage handling to a change in the flow of traffic, particularly on busy North Charles Street. But most of these proposals have landed on a trash heap of broken promises and unfulfilled dreams.
Why has Mount Vernon, home to some of the city's most valued cultural institutions, including the Walters Art Gallery, the Peabody Institute and the Maryland Historical Society, become such a puzzling basket case of urban underachievement?
Some would say the fear of crime has driven the middle class away. But similar neighborhoods in other East Coast cities with crime problems as bad, if not worse, than Baltimore's are havens for yuppies. DuPont Circle in Washington and Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia immediately come to mind.
From my personal experience, scores of interviews over the years with long-time residents and/or city observers, the conclusions about Mount Vernon center on several key problems, including Baltimoreans' attitudes and values, and some urban planning decisions that help to undermine attempts to make the area have more of a feel of a neighborhood.
For example, in Baltimore, it's not trendy to want to live in a cosmopolitan area. The most desirable city neighborhoods, located north of University Parkway, were developed without a retail corridor, which has for years helped those people maintain homogenous communities. People there would not consider living in Mount Vernon where they might associated with the "wrong kinds of people." Conversely, a suburban neighborhood such as Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, while affluent and highly desirable, was developed with small apartment houses as well as a major shopping street through its center.
I lived in New York and Philadelphia for a number of years before moving to Baltimore in 1986. I found that in Philadelphia and New York, and Washington, which I regularly visit, that many residents find it very desirable to live in areas that are historically significant and are close to railroad stations and cultural institutions or just a short walk from small shops and cafes.
Maybe because many people in those three cities seem to desire cosmopolitan living, there appears to be more neighborliness there than in Baltimore, more of a feel of working for the common good of the community. For example, on my occasional visits to my old Philadelphia neighborhood, shopkeepers and workers often greet me as a valued customer. In Mount Vernon's #F neighborhood shops that I patronize weekly, I find workers almost indifferent to my presence.
Under these circumstances, could Mount Vernon once again become fashionable, or at least more fashionable than it is today? A number of efforts have been made in recent years to do just that. Handsome landscaping improvements to Mount Vernon Square, the refurbishing of the Washington Monument, and the opening of several popular restaurants have helped encourage visitors to spend time in the area.
The Mount Vernon/Belvedere Improvement Association is currently working on several fronts to upgrade the area. The association is pushing hard for a Special Benefits District, like the one approved by Charles Village residents, that could significantly help in the crucial areas of sanitation and public safety. Efforts also are being made to change zoning so that town houses are not divided into excessively small apartments.
The association also wants changes in traffic and parking patterns that would enhance the area's residential character. The area suffers from brutal through traffic, particularly along North Charles Street, and very limited parking.
Three major changes are needed: diversion of a significant amount of through traffic around the perimeter of Mount Vernon, a change in traffic signals to slow down the flow of traffic remaining on neighborhood streets and the provision of 24-hour parking for residents.
Such changes are feasible, but many question whether there is sufficient interest on the part of the larger community and the city administration to make them. Would many of the people who now race down Charles Street headed to Interstate 83 fight a change to make Charles Street one way southbound? They would be forced to use another route, possibly the Fallsway, to get to the interstate.