Book contrasts old Baltimore with the new Alterations: Photographs show a city 'in flux,' highlighting what has changed, and what has not.

November 14, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

IT WAS 17 years ago when I met Mark Miller, when he had just brought out a history of the Mount Washington neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. It was a labor of love, as is his newest work, a 223-page opus called "Baltimore Transitions, Views of An American City in Flux."

Ever the meticulous worker, Miller assembled dozens of historic photographs of Baltimore, then returned to the same spot today with a camera. These he presents side-by-side in the pages of his book. The comparative views are remarkable.

In a city that lacks good, reliable and readable books of local history, "Baltimore Transitions" is a must buy.

As if the photos aren't good enough, Miller's captions and chapter headings are breezy and very well-informed. I'm a fan of his conversational style, which is thankfully free of architects' and urban planners' jargon.

As the term "in flux" implies, Miller's book examines the change that so dismays and often horrifies Baltimoreans. We don't like change and we often live in the past. We take it quite personally when a movie theater closes -- no matter that movie theaters are closing in all 50 states and Canada too.

We often refer to a corner or intersection by the name of a firm or school that has not been in existence for 25 years. Stores change hands and we persist in calling them by the old owners' names.

Baltimoreans are great worriers too. We fret that whatever is proposed is too costly, too modern and not served by enough parking. We also abandon, run away, then harbor deep spells of guilt -- or perhaps bittersweet regret -- for having turned our backs on the old neighborhood, church, downtown or community shopping district.

Whether you are a Baltimore worrier or a Baltimore optimist, you won't be able to stop looking through this picture book, which is accompanied by a well- researched text amazingly free of numbing cliches. As I look at the before-and-after shots, I keep thinking just how so much of Baltimore is, in fact, preserved.

Indeed, block after block has fallen in the Charles Center and Inner Harbor areas -- as well as the public housing tear-down sites on the east and west sides of downtown -- but there is still a sizable amount of Baltimore's original fabric intact, a fact that Baltimoreans of the all-is-lost school often overlook.

Just have out-of-town visitors come and take a look. They'll often remark at how much of the old Baltimore is still there -- and how well it looks.

This is a book you'll want to spend some time with. I devoted 20 minutes to gazing at a 1912 picture of old Camden Station and its surrounding neighborhood taken from the top of the Bromo Seltzer Tower. Off to the side is a rare view of the church of St. Joseph's on Lee Street, a Catholic parish that long ago fell apart and completely disappeared. In the 1840s, it was the largest in the city.

Change is everywhere these days. I don't fret about the loss of such passing technologies as the steamboats on the Old Bay Line. And I guess that we can't ever again have such nostalgic scenes as the book's amazing shot of Walbrook Junction from June 25, 1927. This beautifully reproduced double-spread picture looks like a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.

No, what I find myself worrying about is how Baltimore of the 1990s -- which this book perhaps documents even better than it does the Baltimore of the 1920s -- seems deserted, underpopulated, filled with parking lots and expressways, rather than with wonderful streetcar waiting rooms, department stores and gracious 19th-century rowhouses.

Have we forgotten what it is to really live in a city, walk its streets, take its buses and shop its stores? Have we forgotten what we've got in Baltimore?

Here's a fine book that gets you thinking. Is it all gone? Or is it really all there, waiting to be better understood, used and appreciated?

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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