It's the parking, not the players, that the stadium brings to mind

October 26, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

I FEEL LIKE THE last person in Baltimore who is still willing to say a good word about Memorial Stadium. And so, with just a few home games remaining here for the Ravens, in real football weather, it was great to see so many fans storm the old fortress last Sunday in what I guess is its final fall season.

As much as Oriole Park at Camden Yards has been a boost to the downtown scene, I can't help but reminisce about Memorial Stadium. There can't be many Baltimoreans over the age of 15 who don't have vivid memories of damp, gray October afternoons spent at the old fortress on 33rd Street.

I like to think it's because of the sense of place, the big masonry arches, those incredible light boards, the ones that look like mooring towers for a zeppelin. It's difficult not to become enthusiastic about the 1940s-1950s look and feel of the place, as well as the setting among the picturesque homes of Waverly and Ednor Gardens.

Last Sunday, I observed a crowd of Ravens fans pile into the stadium. I love the way people approach this destination on all sides of the circle, each with his or her own personal route, trails that converge on some point of the city compass between 33rd and 36th streets.

I arrived here by accident. I had hailed a scarce cab in Towson, a taxi already loaded with two Towson University students headed toward the stadium with last-minute tickets.

The driver was a salty Baltimorean who went the wrong way down streets that even I didn't know existed. It was a great jaunt that I am sure was cursed by other drivers -- especially those who obeyed the law.

The cabdriver, who never told me his name but who grew up in the 1600 block of Barclay Street, complained about how shabby Greenmount Avenue was looking. This is, indeed, a Baltimore thing, because Baltimoreans love to talk about how shabby they perceive their city to be, no matter how good it's looking.

As we turned off Greenmount onto Chestnut Hill, I pointed out that this classic rowhouse block was in fine physical shape, with porches painted and neatly kept, a number decorated for Halloween. He agreed and then immediately slid into a yap about something else here he didn't like. It was pure Baltimore.

We got to Ellerslie and McKewin, and the boys were ready to get out of the cab and hoof it the rest of the way. The driver said, "Oh, I can do better than this," and put the pedal to the floor along the broken concrete of nearby alleys and neighborhood streets.

One of the practices the cabbie criticized was the selling of parking spaces, which, of course, is a prime source of local revenue. I think every piece of plastic porch furniture not stored for the winter in this neighborhood was on the street, securing 15 feet of asphalt so that latecomers to the game could pay $10 or so to park.

I guess it's illegal, as illegal as the routes the cabbie took to get the Towson fellows to their destination.

Coincidentally, only the night before I had whiled away the hours into early Sunday morning with a neighborhood stadium-parking specialist of those often gray (but ever golden in recall) October-November-December Sundays 35 years ago.

My informant was Ken Hadel, who, it turns out, lived around the corner from my family's home. Hadel lived on Ilchester Avenue and did what so many boys did in that era. He made a few bucks in the outdoor garage game.

The sport of stadium parking extended all the way south to the Waverly Towers Shopping Center, which then, as today, has a large parking lot, free to any patron of the stores there.

"Back then, we charged people $3 to park there, even though it was an open lot and free. We parked them by the Pixie Pizza, Sun Ray drugs, Terry Shops, Rabai's bakery, the Eagle store," said Ken, as he ticked off some of the fallen retailers of sacred neighborhood memory. People recall those disbanded businesses in the same way they relate to the names of favorite Colts players or the pet cars that never quit them back then.

The Towers (it took its name from WWIN's radio antenna) was the first big shopping center in that neighborhood. The strip center was L-shaped and, although few know it, was actually a James Rouse redevelopment project. On opening day Food Fair employees gave away packages of sewing needles as a present to customers.

Parking near the supermarket was also gratis, but stadium drivers didn't always know that. Tucking latecomers into a spot was one of the great job opportunities of the old neighborhood.

Ken Hadel, by the way, still does this, in a sense. He's the manager of the Prime Rib restaurant, who, on a crowded, fall, Saturday evening, still has to figure out where he's going to place a big party of hungry weekend revelers.

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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