Little things demonstrate a city's renaissance Details: A CVS open on Sunday, a working fountain in a park... these are indications of a rebirth.

October 03, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

A few days ago I was chatting with Sandy Hillman, the urban promotion dynamo who helped create and stage the downtown Baltimore City Fairs of the 1970s. In passing, she spoke of the "second Baltimore renaissance," the one we're enjoying right now, the one helped along by this decade's bubble of economic good fortune and stock market peaks.

Her term made me think. Do we realize there is a second renaissance, one that has followed the 1970s remake of the harbor, followed by the opening of Harborplace in 1980?

In recent years the city has not done a good job at promoting itself to the people who live here. This lack of civic self-knowledge produces a curious self-deprecation.

So many Baltimoreans tell me they never visit the harbor or do so only when they have out-of-town guests. Then, having abstained from visits to the center of the metro area where they live, they complain about Baltimore, its politicians, crime, schools and taxes. And while they are on the subject, they recoil in fiscal horror from paying a downtown $7 parking fee.

Hillman's term of a second renaissance is worthy of a good public relations firm. But come to think of it, so much has happened in the past couple of years downtown that the term works as well as any.

I know I have to make an effort to visit and observe much of this downtown change and newness, change which is often subtle and substantial. And it is far-flung. The first harbor renaissance was neatly packaged at Pratt and Light streets. The current one could eat up a day's exploration.

It was a little more than a year ago when I realized that something was different downtown. For the first time in decades, a drugstore, a CVS, opened its doors on a Sunday. For as long as I can recall, every downtown drugstore was closed on Sundays. On the same Sunday that I found a drugstore open, I also spotted a downtown coffee shop open at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

This may not seem very remarkable, but it is truly telling in a city where street amenities are not abundant. But, as the open doors demonstrate, that is changing. Part of any second Baltimore renaissance would have to be the growth and expansion of the harbor's renewal.

Perhaps no single building has confounded the urban redevelopment community more than the Power Plant. Here's a building that should have been a resounding success 15 or 20 years ago. Instead, it was a $25 million failure for the Six Flags Corp. This fall, it is finally completed and seems to have people around it day and night, a good sign for those of us who don't like dull and deserted cities.

I guess it's way too early to praise the new hotels due for construction at South and Pratt streets and the one just below the Christopher Columbus statue and the Public Works Museum. So much has been written about the controversies surrounding these projects that we forget about why they need to be built: Tourists like us here.

nTC This fall will see the dramatic unveiling of the Boston Street corridor and the reopening of the former American Can site in Canton. After years of work, this part of Baltimore has emerged in a unified way. It's no longer a restored building scattered here or there. I can't keep tabs on all the new restaurants that have opened in Canton. This part of Baltimore is about 28 city blocks away from the Inner Harbor -- distance that indicates just how extensive this harbor renewal has become.

A similar spirit has shaken up Highlandtown, the neighborhood just up the little hill from Canton. Southeast Development, the local nonprofit neighborhood group, has bought two locally legendary movie theaters -- the Grand and the Patterson. The group is resolved to get these landmarks open again -- a can-do spirit that must accompany any renaissance.

I fervently believe that it is in the details that you see the real truth. Forget about new sports arenas, hotels and retail outlets. The other evening I was walking northward along Charles Street. There was a lull in the traffic and I could hear the water splashing in the water nymph fountain outside the Walters Art Gallery. After decades of being dry and broken, it was up and working. A city with working park fountains is my idea of a place to live.

Pub Date: 10/03/98

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