Images of past provoke regret, anger at present

November 01, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MARK B. MILLER'S Baltimore is going and gone. In his new book, "Baltimore Transitions: Views of an American City in Flux," he shows us the town's charms before the armies of architects and planners and demolition experts had their way, and also shows us the exact changes in the click of a camera shutter.

The camera is his. Miller first dug up mountains of photos of the city's yesteryear, and then took his own shots of the same locations today -- from the original camera angles. It'll leave you wistful when it doesn't make you mutter a curse under your breath.

There's Howard and Lexington when it seemed the center of the universe, when you had to dress up to go there as though visiting a finicky maiden aunt who'd be checking your manners. Lord, look at the crowds, look at the Modern Times fashions!

And here's the same spot today, trying to find a new face for itself, trying to feel important again, and in the meantime, looking empty and forlorn, the old, magnificent department stores now closed and replaced by secondhand shops, and the shoppers with money having found Towson and Columbia and White Marsh.

Here's East Baltimore, looking east from the Shot Tower in 1850, "the way Edgar Allan Poe would have seen it," Miller writes. The streets are jammed with rowhouses. Here's the same shot, in 1949: Already, there's industrial and commercial takeover of residential neighborhoods.

Then there's the same shot in 1996: All those homes, gone. What had been Exeter Street, now a parking lot by the U.S. post office; the old Hendler's Ice Cream plant gone, replaced by a job-training agency; the Oldtown Meetinghouse, restored in 1996 the McKim Center, standing as one of the district's few relics from the previous century. And all those rowhouses, and kids who ran through those streets, and parents hollering out windows to fetch them for dinner, gone now.

Here's Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard 60 years ago, when Baltimoreans were discovering distant suburbs such as Forest Park with its big, detached houses and grassy yards, and this intersection was the area's first commercial hub.

Here's the same block today. Gone is the Read's Drug Store on the corner, gone all the "businesses that made Forest Park a self-contained community in an era when people didn't travel as far as they do today," Miller writes. It's replaced, in his modern photo, by a handful of young guys lurking on that corner, with buildings locked and burglar-alarmed at night, the area known for a quarter-century for a ruinous narcotics trade.

When Baltimoreans aren't consumed by crime worries, and public schools producing a couple of generations of illiterates, some of us still employ the term Charm City, even if our tongue is slightly in cheek. In some ways, even post-wrecking ball, the title still fits.

And Miller, a Baltimore lifer who's free-lanced for local publications and previously wrote "Mount Washington: Baltimore lTC Suburb," isn't out to trash the town. His book's a combination of love and scholarship. But he wants us to see "what we quickly forget, our memories of yesterday fogged by the concerns and rhythms of today."

But he has his "preservationist biases." And why not? The city currently wrestles with its newest redevelopment plans. We can't continue as the metro area's singular haven for the poor, the indigent, the needy, the criminally sociopathic.

There are plans to demolish downtown's west side, pulling down the last high-rise housing projects and moving the homeless out of the center city. While nobody's going to seriously mourn the loss of high-rise file cabinets, everybody wonders, What's to replace them? Something with even less charm, less likelihood to make the human spirit blossom? Miller's book makes us wonder.

And there are more planned demolition projects on the west side downtown: business locations, about two-thirds of them vacant or beauty salons or pawn shops. The thinkers at City Hall want to bring in not only new residents with stable lives, but more high-end stores.

But that's always been the aim, going back to the very beginning. Miller and Jim Dilts, a former Sun reporter, make us wonder where it keeps going wrong. Dilts, in a foreword to "Baltimore Transitions," writes:

"Urban renewal -- a huge federal program that began with good intentions, produced some benefits though at a high social cost, and was later discredited -- also removed whole neighborhoods. Sometimes the new housing that was built on the sites has itself been demolished as uninhabitable in a mere thirty years."

"Baltimore Transitions" shows us where we were before we got to such a mournful place. It'll make you feel wistful in all those moments when you aren't cursing under your breath.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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