Downtown puts on a show for visitors

April 10, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

If Memorial Day weekend opens the tourist season at Ocean City, then the Downtown Baltimore Show must do the same for the Inner Harbor.

Coaxed along by balmy April weather, the crowds stuffed streets and walks, ornamental pear trees bloomed on cue and the vendors hiked their Coke prices a nickel. It all worked and the thundershowers held off until the weekend was nearly over.

I got a preview of the outpouring of humanity yesterday via an MTA bus bound for Pratt and Light. When it arrived at my stop, the driver could barely get the doors open it was so packed with riders.

The crowds Thursday, Friday, Saturday and yesterday didn't appear to set any records, but the hype and promotion of the Downtown Partnership -- an organization of downtown merchants and property owners -- appeared to accomplish the desired job.

The message beamed at Baltimoreans was that you don't have to be afraid to visit downtown. I joined in the spirit and was soon a credentialed Baltimore tourist, paying $2 for an insultingly small ice cream cone at Harborplace.

One of the weekend's bargains was a $5 admission to the National Aquarium on Friday. The coral reef tank had just reopened after a $14-million repair job.

The coral reef display and the shark tank beneath it remain a fine and effective exhibit. Despite all the money spent on their refurbishment, I didn't get the impression that much had changed. The proof of its success was the fact visitors devote so much of their time there.

Like many a Baltimorean, I hadn't been inside this place since the period before its marine mammal pavilion opened.

I was put off by crowds, the high regular admission price and the name.

The term "national" on National Aquarium is irksome. It's an unearned title. Wasn't it Baltimore taxpayers' money, received from the sale of the old Friendship Airport to the state, that was invested to get this project started?

No matter it's called, the National Aquarium pulls in the people. I listened in on several tourists. Several were speaking Swedish.

In addition to eavesdropping, another way of judging the origin of Baltimore's visitors is to spot the locations emblazoned on their sweat-shirts. New Jersey seems to win this race. Yesterday afternoon it didn't take much searching to sight tourists wearing the colors of Camden, Fort Lee, Nutley, Vineland, Burlington, Boonton and Hammonton.

I've long been fascinated by tourist boating traffic in the harbor. The paddle boats are still churning water. There were lines for the competing Water Taxis and Harbor Shuttle, and people gawking at the city boat that rakes trash from the surface of harbor waters.

The motorized, flat-bottom craft used by the Harbor Shuttle and the Water Taxis seem to have physically grown during the winter. And they arrive and depart with an amazing efficiency. No wonder this is the most popular way of seeing the harbor.

Their comings and goings around the pathetic old Constellation only serve to make her plight all the more pitiable. Will somebody please restore her?

The weekend's promotions spread along Charles Street into Mount Vernon, through the Inner Harbor and south to Federal Hill and the Cross Street Market area. There were also events in Fells Point.

I spent some time walking along Sharp, Hanover and Lee streets in the Otterbein neighborhood south of the Convention Center. A real estate agent stopped to say hello and introduced me to a client looking to rent a townhouse in these parts for $1,000 to $1,200 a month.

Some of us remember when you could buy an entire house for twice, maybe three times that amount around here.

Given the successful way the Otterbein-Federal Hill neighborhood has renewed itself, and the quality of its housing stock, is it really necessary to have a loud band playing to a drinkers' crowd at Charles and Cross streets? The promotional literature called this a Federal Hill Block Party.

Couldn't we have a festival without alcohol in the streets and amplified noise in the air?

Maybe by next year we'll learn that downtown Baltimore is in fact a fine place to visit and that it is also a fine place to live.

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