Only pieces of cities die and they can be reborn

June 30, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

AND SO, as the last remaining True Believers in Baltimore shout hosanna of newborn hope, we remind everyone of that most important lesson of contemporary urban history: Cities don't die. Pieces of cities die - a few neighborhoods here, a shopping district there - but other parts once considered dead and beyond redemption are reborn, and the great beast goes on, defying time, defying logic and sometimes even defying the sleepwalkers at City Hall who appear oblivious to the whole process.

The latest talk of life after death emerges from the mouth of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who needs some good news. Calling it "one of the most exciting moments" of his 10 beleaguered years running the city - What's second most-exciting? A dip in the homicide rate? - the mayor unveiled a $350 million redevelopment plan for the west side of downtown said to resemble the Inner Harbor renewal, at least in scope.

This is thrilling news for those who remember the area with affection: Howard Street's department stores that resembled great dowager ladies, Eutaw Street's frenetic hustle and bustle, the Lexington Market's lush tastes and smells before it became (unfairly) linked in the public's mind to a nearby videotaped police shooting.

That entire west side of downtown has been clinging to life, and trying to figure out a role for itself, for the past four decades, ever since the first fatigued downtown shopper glanced toward suburbia and spotted the first shopping mall stuck on the side of a highway with free parking and air conditioning, and declared, "Why am I putting up with so much aggravation down here?"

Once, Howard Street wasn't aggravation, it was what big-city cosmopolitan living was all about. If you set foot on Howard Street, you got yourself all dressed up, as though visiting a proper maiden aunt, whether you arrived to shop in the big stores or catch a first-run movie, or you just wanted to walk around and feel like a big shot.

This was the very nerve center of a city that still felt reasonably puffed up about itself. For at least the past quarter-century, though, Howard Street seemed to exist in shadows, its sidewalks given over to lost stragglers with nowhere else to go, and its history stuck in some faded corner of memory.

Now, everybody says, the moment of rejuvenation has to be seized. The economy's sizzling, there's money all around, and all of that wondrous development happening along the water's edge from Federal Hill to Canton won't mean much if everybody's afraid to venture a few blocks inland.

And so, last week, we had Mayor Schmoke sitting at his weekly news conference and talking not only about this great rejuvenation but, for credibility's sake, talking of great private support coming from Orioles owner Peter Angelos and from the University of Maryland, whose professional schools need a sign that someone cares, and from the Weinberg Foundation, whose participation represents one of the great ironies of this story.

The Weinberg Foundation holds $1.2 billion in assets, including many downtown properties. Such well-intended wealth is now considered a godsend - which shows how short our memories are. The foundation is named for the late Harry Weinberg, the sixth-grade dropout who became a billionaire and had to die before beginning to breathe life back into this city.

Weinberg, also known as Honolulu Harry, bought up dozens of downtown Baltimore buildings over the years and simply sat on them as the area fell apart. Mostly, he'd sit in his office out in Hawaii and refuse all discussion. Occasionally, he'd venture back to Baltimore, where the mayor named William Donald Schaefer would plead with him.

"Look at Stewart's," Schaefer cried one afternoon. "Look at Hochschild Kohn. They're empty. This used to be the heart of downtown. You gotta do something."

But Weinberg bluntly said no, and Schaefer stormed off, declaring, "He'd rather let the damned buildings stand there and rot, instead of fix them up and put people inside of 'em."

For Weinberg, some said, it was a $50 million tax write-off. But, with his intransigence, downtown continued its slide into the oblivion from which it still needs to be rescued today. When Weinberg died, nearly eight years ago, he left much of his fortune in the hands of his foundation, with millions specifically earmarked for good civic deeds.

And, as The Sun's Edward Gunts reported two days ago, the Howard Street area is only a piece of major initiatives kicking in downtown. There are big plans for Charles Street, for Mount Vernon, for Charles Center and the central business district, and for neighborhoods on the east and west sides of downtown.

Cities don't die. Pieces of cities die, but other pieces are reborn. And, to look at Howard Street and the Weinberg Foundation's crucial role, something else is clear. People don't always die. Sometimes they're reborn as the name on a foundation, which has more heart than the human being it replaced.

Pub Date: 6/30/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.