Cross Street area back with trendy businesses Renewal: The once-seedy neighborhood has been reborn with a dozen new restaurants and shops.

November 18, 1997|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

From the teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks file comes this story of a neighborhood that has battled back from the edge of decrepitude to reinvent itself as Baltimore's newest home for trendy boutiques, bars and bistros.

No one would have guessed it a few years ago, though, when the streets around Cross Street Market seemed destined for a bleak future.

Longtime anchor stores Epstein's and the Princess Shop had called it quits -- victims of the malling of America. One in three storefronts was vacant. Second-hand clothing stores, pawnshops and panhandlers mingling outside the market came to define the neighborhood.

But some observers now think the blocks just above and below Cross Street are back.

A rundown bakery equipment warehouse, for example, was gutted and replaced by Pimella's, a gourmet foods boutique in the 1100 block of S. Charles St. that sells $6 jars of mustard, fancy salsas and vinaigrettes. At a ribbon-cutting last summer, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke were on hand to tout the store as a shining example of urban renewal.

Since then, nearly a dozen restaurants and shops have opened in the neighborhood, which is roughly along the 800 to 1200 blocks of Charles and Light streets, bordered by Montgomery and Ostend to the north and south. The range of new offerings includes a travel boutique, an African art gallery, a snowboarders shop and a paint-your-own pottery store. Existing businesses are expanding. The vacancy rate hovers respectably between 10 percent and 15 percent, down from a high of 30.

Good time

"It's a propitious time because things are really exploding around here," said Sonny Morstein, owner of Morstein's Jewelers, which has occupied space on Light Street for 99 years.

A few "For Lease" signs advertise empty storefronts. Panhandlers still gather outside the market entrances. But the neighborhood has become a destination for young business owners and a new style of restauranting and retailing.

One of the keys to the apparent rebirth seems to be cleaner, safer streets.

"Crime and grime is everyone's main concern," said Morstein, who is also president of the neighborhood's active merchants' group, the South Baltimore/Federal Hill Marketplace Association.

As one of the city's nine Retail Business District License areas, fees paid by merchants are pooled to buy services not provided by the city, such as weekend street cleaning and the "Federal Hill" banners fluttering from lampposts.

Those fees also paid for beepers worn by local police officers, who can be paged by merchants seeking help, or just advice.

"We can solve a lot of the little problems people may have but may not call 911 for," said Officer Ken Lipman, a nine-year Southern District veteran who requested foot patrol last year because he likes the face-to-face interaction with merchants and residents.

"We have a good relationship. And we're always in walking distance."

The result has been a small stampede of people such as Vann Durham and Spiro Sederis, partners who opened Charm City Cafe last month inside the burned-out shell of the former Dan Brothers shoe store. The coffee-and-pastries shop is busy with people dining beneath autographed Orioles' pictures lining the walls (Durham's father, Joe, in 1954 became the first African-American to hit a home run for the Orioles).

"We came into the area because of the diversified community," Durham said. "It's a strange community. It's a city and a neighborhood, so you get neighbors and tourists alike. It's a great mix of people."

Tried the rest

Kim Richlin had tried running kiosks at three malls during the past year before deciding to abandon the mall scene and open her TravelBug boutique of travel guides, fanny packs and travel alarm clocks on Charles Street last month.

"I looked at a bunch of different Baltimore neighborhoods, as well as Annapolis and D.C.," Richlin said. "But I wanted a small store nTC in a neighborhood that had a lot of potential -- with a lot of yuppies. A real up-and-coming neighborhood,"

The residential boom in nearby Federal Hill, which has been pushing south into South Baltimore, has helped spur the rise of the neighborhood's businesses.

But not everyone is pleased with the recent changes, and problems remain. Most of the merchants complain about a severe scarcity of parking and stalled plans to expand a city-owned lot into a multilevel parking garage.

"I think it's growing too fast," said Kirby Tsui, owner of Szechuan Restaurant. "There are too many restaurants. Too much competition. Too many pieces of the pie being divided up. And I think the city has to do a better job with getting rid of the bums."

Another problem has been a neighborhood identity crisis. Some folks wanted night life and megabars, some wanted lights out at 10 p.m. Some think of the area as an extension of Federal Hill, some bristle at the "yuppification" of what they consider South Baltimore.

Some dissent

"Sometimes people have differing ideas on what constitutes a community," said Lois Garey, the district's city councilwoman. "There have been some genuine wars."

But there has also been a new sense of cooperation between old timers -- such as Herb's Bargain Center, which boasts a wide range of Elvis paraphernalia -- and newcomers such as Richlin, who feel as if they have gotten in on the front end of a soon-to-be hot spot.

"I think people are looking for places to shop other than the mall," Richlin said. "I mean, I go to Towson [mall] to shop. But I don't want to."

Pub Date: 11/18/97

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