Building Main Street in White Marsh

THIS JUST IN ...

November 25, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Which Main Street do you suppose will emerge in White Marsh? The one that used to be known as Howard Street and, once upon a time, was the shopping mecca of downtown Baltimore? Despite reports to the contrary, Howard Street isn't really dead. Rather, its spirit has been sitting comatose in American Limbo (sorry, I don't know the ZIP), waiting for some urban planner/action hero to retrieve it, slip it a magic lozenge and put it back on the map.

That's what those adventurers from Nottingham Properties are up to -- they want to bring Main Street back from deep space and put it somewhere in the paved paradise of White Marsh. They want to create a kind of "downtown theme park," with a giant movie house, a huge bookstore, a bunch of shops, restaurants and cafes -- all "reminiscent" of a once-upon-a-time Main Street.

What's not to like? Main Street Lite is better than no main street at all. Building White Marsh from the inside out -- starting with a Main Street, instead of a mall and a parking lot, 15 years ago -- would have been the wiser course. But Main Street Late is better than no Main Street at all. Having this new Main Street within easy walking distance of neighborhoods -- having actual neighborhoods, with corner stores and coffee shops -- would have been a good idea. But you can't have everything.

Hey, maybe it's just another shopping center. But let's suspend the cynicism for a minute. A trend actually seems to be emerging among American developers, a rethinking of the suburbs and at least a nod to the value of both the small town and the city neighborhood. Hard to believe, but some of these guys actually draw sidewalks into their plans now!

What's being recognized in Nottingham's $35 million "Avenue at White Marsh" is the need to provide people with a place to be seen, heard, encountered, engaged -- and there are little opportunities for that kind of thing to happen, casually and routinely, anywhere out there in the paved paradises that were developed in America over the last 50 years.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, author of an excellent book titled "The Great Good Place," focuses on that one aspect of post-World War II America as the source of many of our social ills. He argues that, without informal gathering places -- "Where everybody knows your name" -- away from home and away from work, we lose our sense of community and the common good. Oldenburg is not merely nostalgic for the days when people lived closer to their work and had more time to belong to bowling leagues, to stop for a coffee at a muffin shop and to knock back a drink at the corner bar. He approaches this subject as a clinician. With all our commuting, we have less time for communing; with all our television watching, less time for talking. With all our air conditioning, less time outdoors, in plain sight of our neighbors. We're less involved with the mainstream, more isolated from each other than were our ancestors, who lived in villages and, later, city neighborhoods.

But is it true, and does it matter?

I mean, hasn't talk radio become the great bridge-builder in our society? It's not a divisive force, is it? Rush and all his imitators bring people together in the great good place of the air, right?

And what about computers? We don't need Main Streets made of brick and mortar because they exist in cyberspace, right? I've heard it passionately argued that the information highway will take us many places, including the ole town common. We'll be able to step into one of those online "chat rooms," and everybody will know our name, or handle -- just like a computerized "Cheers" bar. And we'll be in touch with our neighbors and fellow citizens, minus the stress of commuting, parking and meeting people face to face.

It is tempting to believe the argument that (mating purposes aside) people don't see the need to be seen, heard, encountered and engaged in public gathering places, with full frontal human contact. Two or three generations have grown up in this country since World War II, and they don't know from Main Street. They know from television, cars, highways, housing developments, shopping malls and drive-through dining. Building Main Street in the paved paradise of the suburbs is a laudable effort. But if you build it, will they come?

Nottingham Properties has $35 million says they will.

Postscript to beating case

Regarding Friday's column: I might have left the impression that lights were turned off at the Exxon station on Russell Street in South Baltimore just as beating victim Mike Donlan approached for help. That did not happen. Donlan and his family, it should also be noted, are pressing the Police Department for further investigation, as well they should.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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