City still charming 20 years later - just a bit different

This Just In. . .

October 06, 1995|By DAN RODRICKS

Mostly flattering, sometimes demeaning, always amusing -- so I describe the many articles that have been written about Baltimore by out-of-townies. Travel writers come through here now and then, posing as literary tourists slumming in the gritty mid-Atlantic. We should be grateful that they even bother. This ,, year Baltimore has had two write-ups in the New York Times and -- la-dee-dah, hon! -- one of them was published in the Sophisticated Traveler Sunday supplement.

By now, there have been hundreds of "travel guides to Charm City" published in magazines and newspapers, most of them since our legendary Baltimore Renaissance. But the biggest boost to civic pride came five years before Harborplace. In 1975, a writer gushed about Baltimore over 27 pages of National Geographic.

"An undiscovered city, prejudged by motorists passing its industrial outskirts at 50 miles an hour," wrote Fred Kline in the 'Graphic. "But now I've been to Baltimore and what surprises greeted me! Having wandered her neighborhoods and met her people, having been touched by the doughty spirit of the city, I know that what I first saw was just a tattered overcoat -- only one aspect of a city whose singular character, charm, and yes, even beauty, have made those early impressions fade like a mirage."

I came across Kline's glossy article while picking through a stack old NG's. I noticed that the piece barely acknowledged the city's black population. It was mostly a paean to white Baltimore. Still, it must have been one of the first, modern "user guides" for tourists. It celebrated the things many natives probably took for granted and most Americans never knew.

The majority of Kline's statements about the city still stand up in 1995. But several of them don't. It's interesting to note the differences 20 years have made.

1975: "Around the inner-city harbor," Kline wrote, "exotic wafts of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon drift on the wind -- whatever McCormick & Co. is processing that day."

1995: McCormick is still processing spices -- but in Hunt Valley, and soon in Harford County.

1975: "An 87-pound black drumfish is hefted to a cleaning table at Baltimore's Wholesale Fish Market." (Photo caption.)

1995: The market is in Jessup now.

1975: "The haunted faces from hell along the Pratt Street skid row . . ."

1995: The homeless men who used to burn scrap wood in a steel drum across from the World Trade Center are gone now; today's skid rowers and panhandlers are scattered to other downtown streets.

1975: "Spacious Charles Center Plaza frames 'Energy,' a 33-foot free-form bronze by Italian sculptor Francesco Somaini. Hamburgers, a clothing store, occupies one corner of the showcase. . ." (Photo caption.)

1995: The Sun's last comprehensive story on this part of the city ran under the headline, "Charles Center: Is it dead?" One Charles went on the auction block a while back, its value as downtown real estate significantly diminished. Hamburger's closed in 1992. Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is moving its corporate headquarters to the Annapolis area, though most of BGE's downtown workers will remain at Charles Center. "Energy" has been moved to Russell Street and the front of the RESCO incinerator plant.

1975: "They are still some 175 strong, a corps of 'A-rabbers' . . . pony-and-wagon hucksters of fruits and vegetables with soul."

1995: The latest count on licensed a-rabbers was 15.

1975: "The port of Baltimore each year handles some 4,500 ships and more than two billion dollars' worth of cargo. In tonnage of foreign commerce it ranks fourth in the nation. . . ."

1995: Make that 13th in the nation. About 2,300 ships call on the port each year, and last year the value of the 26 million tons of cargo that came through it was more than $19 billion.

1975: "The city's rabid sports fans follow the ups and downs of five professional teams -- the Orioles, football's Colts, hockey's Clippers, soccer's Comets and the Banners team tennis."

1995: Make that four. We cling to the O's. The Colts are 11 years gone, but we have the Stallions. The Clippers are gone, but we have the Bandits. And the Spirit has started practice for another National Professional Soccer League season.

1975: "Work will soon begin on an ambitious "new-town-in-town" called Coldspring -- 4,000 dwellings on a hilly wooded site conceived to entice middle-income families from suburbia to a well-planned, architecturally exciting city neighborhood."

1995: There is still no town at New Town. There are only 252 condominiums. The Coldspring urban renewal plan has been revised, and another 102 traditionally designed homes are going in. But that's about it.

1975: "'There will always be a Block in Baltimore,'" Blaze Starr said. 'If not here, somewhere else. . . . Maybe they'll make my autobiography into a movie.'"

1995: Someone did make the movie ("Blaze," 1989, starring Paul Newman and Lolita Davidovich). As for the The Block, all its obituaries have been premature. It's hanging on, though barely. Looks like a lot of it has moved to North Point Boulevard.

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