Harborplace is like the rest of Baltimore -- it's changing

March 08, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

WALKING AROUND the harbor the other day, I noticed the train rails on Light Street. They reminded me of the little freight train that often interrupted our ride home from a Sunday evening visit to my grandmother's house on Poultney Street in South Baltimore.

The train seemed to materialize from nowhere, and with my father's car stopped in front of the tracks, we'd watch the engine move purposefully around the harbor's edge, with a trail of much-used freight cars in tow.

One open car always carried a load of shiny scraps hauled out of the old Federal Tin plant. Another was filled with paper rolls destined for the News American, which Baltimoreans persisted in calling the News-Post. The train called at the McCormick spice plant, too.

Today all these downtown industries have disappeared -- along with the grime of 1950s Baltimore. You have to strain to recall what the Federal Tin plant looked like.

But you don't have to go back that far to have your memory tested. Just walk into Harborplace, which was built 18 years ago this summer, about the same time the little freight train disappeared.

I strolled through the two pavilions and discovered that the harbor's constant metamorphosis continues apace this season.

Long gone is James Rouse's original vision of a festival marketplace, a kind of updated neighborhood market full of fresh flowers, sacks of potatoes and refrigerator display cases showing lamb chops, butter and cottage cheese.

The Light Street Pavilion is full of construction workers turning smaller spaces into larger ones. Aisles have disappeared. New spots have been created from the spaces left behind by merchants once as familiar to me as Federal Tin.

The situation isn't much different at the Pratt Street Pavilion. There are signs for the new Planet Hollywood, which construction workers are creating from the space I persist in thinking of as the Limited and the China Closet.

It's funny. I bought my first coffee maker at the China Closet -- and it's still dripping along -- but I never thought that I'd put that store in the same category as such once-familiar harbor sights as the watermelon boats that docked along Pratt Street.

The wave of change doesn't end at the Light Street Pavilion. I walked over to the east, past that never-ending line of aquarium visitors, one of the few constants in these parts, and snooped around the Power Plant.

Of all this season's harbor projects, it is undergoing the most major work. Here is the real spring-offensive action of the harbor.

I watched hard-hatted workers gut the surviving chunks of the failed 1980s entertainment complex run by Six Flags. A lot of money was wasted on that exercise, perhaps the biggest failure ever at the harbor.

It was exciting and heartening to see new uses materialize for the Power Plant. Here is a great building, a wonderful piece of 1901 engineering and brickwork, whose potential has been unrealized for so long.

Why has the corner of Pratt and Light streets done so well for the past 18 years, while the Power Plant, a close neighbor, has been something of a graveyard? Let's hope the jinx was dispelled with this past summer's arrival of the Hard Rock Cafe.

All the energy and positive vibes spilling out of the Power Plant this month made me think that one day there will be a solution for the Columbus Center and City Life Museums. By the end of my little tour, I was fascinated by Baltimore's capacity to accommodate and change.

I thought fondly of the little freight train that picked up the castoff metal from Federal Tin. I still make Sunday evening trips home from the house on Poultney Street, where my brother lives now. My father is still at the wheel. But these days, when we pause, it is for a batch of pedestrians heading for whatever is new this year at the harbor.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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