TWO VERY DIFFERENT cities have rediscovered the importance of light in the past two years.
Moscow, the drab capital of the now-collapsed Evil Empire, has started illuminating everything from colorful Russian Orthodox storybook churches to Stalin's skyscrapers and bridges. Even Lubyanka, the notorious KGB headquarters, now bathes in light at night.
In Baltimore, a similar trend started a year ago, when NationsBank lit up its 34-story Art Deco landmark at 10 Light Street. Several other downtown buildings, including the Italianate Bromo Seltzer Tower at Lombard and Eutaw streets, are now illuminated at night as a result of a coordinated ''Brighten Baltimore'' campaign.
The latest landmark to get this treatment is 15 blocks north from downtown. Some 700 formally dressed party-goers at a $125-a-person gala gaped last Saturday as the facade of the Pennsylvania Station was illuminated. Fireworks shot along its Beaux-Arts columns; fanfares were played.
Gateway to Baltimore
By the time current improvements are completed, the 84-year-old colossus will be turned into a gateway to Baltimore. It will have an information center featuring an interactive model of the city from the Baltimore Museum of Art in the north to the Inner Harbor in the south, Fells Point in the east to Carroll Park in the west. Visitors will be able to familiarize themselves with the attractions and streetscape, and determine the most convenient mode of transport, be it light rail or water taxi.
Accompanying these improvements, which are coordinated by Mayor Kurt Schmoke's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture, is a comprehensive revitalization strategy. Steps are being taken to enhance cleanliness and safety around the station which is used by more than 36,000 people each week.
The Mount Royal district south of the station has made progress in recent years, chiefly due to the University of Baltimore's expansion. The two-block stretch of Charles Street north of the station that intersects with North Avenue has been a tougher nut to crack.
Once the home of the city's leading Cadillac dealership (now a laundromat) and the famous Chesapeake seafood restaurant (vacant for a decade), it has experienced a repeated pendulum movement of up and down.
Although none of its main draws is rolling in money these days, at least the cultural and entertainment venues along the stretch are attracting enough patrons to survive.
''We are hanging in there,'' reports Barbara Lahnstein who, with Odessa Dunson, operates Cafe Metropol & Gallery.
The basic problem is safety. ''Until the city does something about panhandling and crime around the area, perception isn't going to change,'' says Charles Smith of Greenmount West Community Association.
There are signs of hope. The Charles Theater, one of the city's few art movie houses, is still open after almost going out of business two years ago. Everyman Theater,a professional ensemble nearby, is doing well enough for producing director Vincent Lancisi to declare that ''we have really turned the corner here.''
There are also signs of new investment. In the 1800 block of Charles Street, the owner of Choices has just spent a bundle to provide the night club an Art Deco exterior. Some 25 years ago, that building housed Gatsby's, the city's hippest night club for a time. Choices draws a similar crowd, prompting some to think that better days are returning to the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Charles Street.
Among the optimists are the proprietors of Cafe Metropol & Gallery. They now keep it open until 3:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturday to attract the night crawlers.
Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.