Reimagining Baltimore as a city with a future

November 17, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The most outdated discussion in the suburbs around Baltimore is the one about the death of the city of Baltimore. In fact, the great urban beast lives. You can tell by the trail of the money, and also by the sound of laughter after dark.

Like last week, on a Thursday night on Boston Street in Canton, where several hundred people gathered at the new Bibelot bookstore. They were mostly young professional people, mainly unattached, and some were actually there to read a book and not just each other's glances.

When they left, they stopped at restaurants and bars and food markets on Boston Street, and gazed across the street where pleasure boats of all kinds were docked at water's edge, and some of these people walked a few blocks to the new Canton townhouses and apartments where they've moved in because it feels like a community instead of a tract on the side of a highway.

The Bibelot bookstore opened in a building once declared dead, the old American Can Co. Some people once wanted to tear it down instead of using their imagination. The opening follows the recent Barnes & Noble opening at the Inner Harbor, in a power plant also once considered dead. You can witness its "death" any day or night now, by following the crowds there.

Some death; some dead city.

At Charles and Fayette streets, we now have the Johns Hopkins University preparing a move to the old, abandoned Hamburger's clothing store location. Instead of a death, we'll have a $6 million rebirth into the Hopkins School of Continuing Studies Center, including a Times Square-type news ticker stretching along two sides of the building.

Tell me about the dying of the city of Baltimore.

We all hear such talk. It comes from people who fled the city 30 years ago, fearful of racial entanglements; or it comes from those who fled the city 20 years ago because they imagined the most important thing in their lives was the size of their property tax; or it comes from those who say there's no public school where they can send their children.

The last point is well-taken, but also signals a different kind of a city being reborn now, one with enough money floating around, and enough enthusiasm, that one day it might actually fuel an immigration into the city of middle-class people with school-age kids.

Think not? Who'd have imagined the old rotting piers of Pratt Street reborn as Harborplace? Who'd have imagined neighborhoods like Federal Hill or Sandtown-Winchester, once destined for wrecking balls but thriving now?

For that matter, who'd have imagined a report like last week's from Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit business group that spent the past 18 months analyzing previously moribund downtown and declaring rebirth all around?

As in private and public investment, up 40 percent in the last year. As in job growth that's risen higher than the rest of the region, and higher than the rest of the country. As in the vacancy rate of office buildings, once so high (20 percent) that many thought it signaled a coming mass abandonment of downtown for distant suburban office space. Instead, downtown office vacancies are now at their lowest level this decade.

So tell me again about the death of the city of Baltimore.

Those who have fled to suburbia have an emotional investment in such talk. Having bailed out of the city some time back, they need to justify their move. So they point to the things that trouble everyone: the crime, the drugs, the trouble in the schools.

All of which is true, and none of which is exclusive to the city. Just as parts of cities (and vacant can companies, and power plants) age and decay, and lie there nursing their wounds for a while as other areas, previously dead, are reborn, the same is true of the larger metro area, parts of which see physical decay in some neighborhoods, and see bored middle-class kids dabbling in drugs, and trouble in the schools.

In the city, across the street from the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, we have the dedicated folks at Our Daily Bread. For years, they've fed hundreds of hungry and desolate people every day. Now city officials want to move them.

The issue's become a crossroads of poverty and economic progress. Everyone wants to take care of the truly downtrodden -- but, for too long, it's been overwhelmingly the city's province. Now, nobody's saying Our Daily Bread should give up its ministry -- only move it to some other location, similarly convenient.

Because lots of people, including those who once gave up on the city, who called it unlivable, who vowed never to come back, have begun to reimagine its potential as a profit center, as a place where people safely gather, as a living organism -- and see that geographic chunk of downtown as strategic: for renewing vigor, for rebuilding a tax base, and for rebirthing a community where all kinds of people live, and even send their children to school one day.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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