Is people mover head to Big John's?

This Just In...

June 01, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

THE MAYOR of Baltimore is bullish on the people mover idea. Nice to see the mayor bullish on something. Bullish is not the word we associate with the mayor. His nature tends more toward the ursine. But he is bullish on the people mover - $210 million for an overhead monorail, a slab of concrete held up by concrete pilings across the city's fabulous downtown, past the Inner Harbor, through Fells Point, all the way to Canton.

It should be noted, before we go any further, that if not for the Big John Hotel at Inner Harbor East, the one being developed by the mayor's political sugar daddy, then we wouldn't be hearing about the people mover much. In all the years since the unappreciated genius Wally Orlinsky broached the idea, we haven't heard much more than a peep on it from the city's downtown brain trust. And downtown traffic congestion? Anybody ever hear the mayor raise that as a critical issue?

But John Paterakis comes along with his hotel a mile from the convention center, and suddenly we have a downtown traffic crisis and the mayor goes after Congress and the Clinton administration for dough for a people mover. It might not be what the city needs - I could think of better uses for $210 million, couldn't you? - but it's just what the Big John Hotel needs.

The people mover might actually be a good idea, though I don't believe it belongs on Pratt Street or anywhere near Fells Point and Canton. But this scheme has been tainted by the political actions of the mayor during the last year; he supported public subsidy for the Paterakis hotel against the advice of his own economic development cognoscenti. Now, the mayor's bullishness on the people mover looks like a boondoggle that would benefit primarily one hotel on the east side of the waterfront, a mile from the convention action. The only other issue on which the mayor seems bullish is the legalization of slot machines. A lot of people are convinced that the Big John Hotel will one day be a casino. Are you seeing a pattern here?

Out of sight

When they built Our Daily Bread of brick and mortar at the corner of Cathedral and Franklin, I took it as a sign of defeat in the war on poverty. The new building looked too strong, too institutional, too permanent. Workers should have chiseled into a cornice the words of Matthew: "For ye have the poor always with you."

A more hopeful statement would have been made had ODB stayed relatively small and relatively informal, not a permanent square in the downtown urbanscape. It could have moved, during harder times, to a larger space; it could have been reduced in size during better times. A handful of idealists hoped it wouldn't be needed at all one happy day in the future. Instead it has remained in place, a permanent lunchroom for the permanent underclass.

Now, downtown movers and shakers are considering a move of Our Daily Bread from this permanent building to a less conspicuous place on the west side, with an eye toward incorporating it into a comprehensive resource center for the poor.

Turns out, more people than we knew hoped ODB would go away some day.

For several years now, as the Charles Street revival struggled, as the Downtown Partnership campaigned to make the streets more conducive to work, play and shopping, we've heard grumbles about panhandlers and crime, about the many guys hanging around before and after lunch at Our Daily Bread, intimidating people, scaring off visitors to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Until now, the movers and shakers in this city have been relatively generous in their toleration of all this. In other cities, the soup kitchen guys have been bumped around a lot more in efforts to get them out of view. (My favorite ploy on this front: Los Angeles, in 1984, a formal-attire company gave away hundreds of tuxedos to dress up the city's homeless during the Summer Olympics.) One of the most memorable essays by the aristocratic columnist George Will argued for rounding up and sheltering the homeless, if only because society had a right to protect itself from the distorted impression that ours is a civilization in chaos and decay.

Actually, ours is a polarized society - socially and economically - and more so than ever. The dream of Charles Street is that it will once again appeal to boutique shoppers and the power lunch crowd - the well-off, if not downright rich. It's argued that you can't have a magnet for society's dregs - in this case, Our Daily Bread - near the heart of such a dreamy revival.

Some of us see Our Daily Bread as a point of civic pride, the symbolic cornerstone of the community's embrace of the poor, right near the cardinal's home and the Basilica of the Assumption. Others see ODB as an eyesore, a drag on downtown's renewal.

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