Downtown finds new ways to remain charming

November 30, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

THIS TIME OF YEAR I GET TO thinking about Thanksgiving weekends of the past -- about window-shopping, wandering along the downtown streets and listening for the mechanical ho-ho-ho of the laughing Santa at Howard and Lexington streets.

We've lost all that -- the five downtown department stores and the bustle of sidewalks filled with shoppers weighed down with their bags and heavy winter coats.

Each year I vow not to get too nostalgic about this, and then I break my promise. I lapse into a reverie about some distant, glowing red-and-green time when Brooks Robinson was at third base and Hochschild's toy department hummed with the sound of electric trains.

Why not? If you can't get sentimental in the weeks before Christmas, why bother at all?

The other night, while out for a cozy dinner with friends, I looked out a window of the Chart House restaurant. We chattered away, exaggerating the glories of past Christmas shopping seasons. It was around 8 o'clock, damp and chilly on the harbor. At what seemed like intervals of 15 minutes, a pair of joggers circled around the length of the pier. The first time I saw these runners, I thought how eccentric they were. It was late, and they weren't exactly bundled up.

I was inside, warm and having a good time. Then it came to me. These joggers were here because they wanted to be. They saw something in the downtown scene that I probably saw when I took in the Howard Street sights 35 years ago.

And come to think of it, on many a cold night this time of year, my thoughts -- and often my feet as well -- turn to an extended holiday visit within the new downtown.

I start at Federal Hill park, just off Warren Avenue. Most of the trees are leafless. I have the park to myself, and there is a high-kilowatt bath of light around the edge of that plateau overlooking the best of the city's rebuilt downtown.

I try to visit on a night when there's a decent moon over the Patapsco, and maybe a spectacular orange-leading-to-violet sunset over Catonsville and Arbutus. If it's a cold night and there are stars out, the scene is set all the better.

I don't know why, but the Domino Sugars sign glows more brilliantly on a clear evening. A few pleasure boats will be outlined with strands of lights. The downtown skyline is dramatic. I'm a sucker for the golden glow atop the NationsBank Building.

There's an added bonus when the ice rink at Rash Field has skaters on it; better yet if I hear some merry music being amplified though a speaker.

My next stops -- on foot, of course -- are Federal Hill's ancient streets, the ones where all the houses (or most of them, anyway) could be on a Christmas card.

I don't know if I could produce the patience to festoon and decorate the way people do here -- doorways full of apples and pineapples. The street lamps and candles in the windows cast cheery shadows across the irregular sidewalks. I like it when people leave their curtains open, so that my eyes can peek inside at a well-trimmed tree or manger scene.

Sometimes I hear a horn from a distant railroad train. I'm never sure where it is, but it makes me think of the electric trains of Christmases past -- and even the freight train that used to run around the harbor on Pratt and Light streets, the one that hauled spices to the old McCormick's plant and newsprint rolls to the also-vanished News American building.

Baltimoreans tend to grow misty-eyed and syrupy when talking about how they recall a neighborhood or event. But aren't we in the midst of a golden period now, with a harbor's edge lighted for the holidays?

No, it is not the downtown of a Hutzler's, Hochschild's and Stewart's. But take a look at what we do have. On a fine, cool night, take that downtown stroll and consider a Gallery, Aquarium and Columbus Center. And don't forget to look up at the moon and the stars.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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