City's renaissance story poised for a happy ending

April 27, 1999|By Michael Olesker

BACK IN town for the Maryland Film Festival, Baltimorean Dan Rosen relaxed for a few minutes in Louie's Bookstore Cafe the other day and related the fantastical and other-worldly view of those who wish to make movies and those who sometimes stand in the way.

Rosen lives in Los Angeles now. He's 35, a former stand-up comic, writer of one film, "The Last Supper," and now director of "The Curve," which was shot around Baltimore and closed the film festival here Sunday night.

"I did a treatment for a script for 'The Len Bias Story,'" Rosen was saying. Bias was the University of Maryland basketball sensation who imagined himself indestructible and thus ended his life with a drug overdose on the night he was the top draft choice of the NBA Boston Celtics. It is still one of the most painful cautionary tales in the history of American sports.

"I took the story" to one of the big studios, said Rosen. "The woman I met with said, 'We like it. But, uh, does he have to die at the end?'" Well, uh, that's the point, isn't it? We all like happy endings, but Bias' dying was that painful reminder that actions have consequences.

The story hung in the air Sunday night, as Rosen's new movie ended and the Maryland Film Festival called it a wrap, because something similar has happened in the city of Baltimore. Pieces of it have died, sometimes as the consequence of drugs, or rampant gunplay, or government incompetence. Actions have consequences, and so does inaction.

But, late Sunday, when the last of the crowds had departed the film festival and headed downtown to a farewell party at the National Aquarium, there was this reaction: Maybe this city has taken another Hollywood twist, and finally slipped past midnight, toward the dawn, without fully realizing it. Maybe there's something to this second renaissance business.

Part of this notion comes with the angle of the moment: From the fourth floor of the aquarium, gazing toward Harborplace, it looked like a stage set. The whole world seemed to glisten.

But, a few days earlier, there was also encouragement from a 228-page study called Plan Baltimore, the city's new 20-year comprehensive master plan. There are numbers behind the new hopes.

You think it's superficial to simply gaze at the lights of Harborplace and declare a second renaissance? How's this for backup? A year ago, the city drew 13.4 million tourists -- up 47 percent since 1993. The tourism business generated 16,000 jobs and $2.6 billion in spending, a lifesaver to a city that depends on the kindness of strangers to bankroll it.

But, as Plan Baltimore notes, there's now a ripple effect from the Inner Harbor. The sales prices of several Pratt Street office buildings hit record highs a year ago. Development on the east side of the harbor is accelerating, and the new Port Discovery children's museum has finally brought excitement to the Market Place area.

And it's begun to dawn on those who are paid to think about such things: The real charms of Baltimore are still mostly undiscovered by outsiders.

If we can find safe passage for them beyond the lights of Harborplace, away from the abandoned houses with young men putting needles in their arms who imagine themselves indestructible, they can discover that this city's an original. It's not a town of shopping malls, which are seen in any American community. It's got neighborhoods, in all their cobbled, unpolished distinctiveness, with the dust of history still covering them.

"Baltimore is the genuine article," the Plan Baltimore report notes. "(It) has a wealth of untapped potential to draw tourists beyond the Inner Harbor to the historic neighborhoods and cultural institutions which make our city unique around the world."

If such language sounds a little Chamber of Commercey, the Plan Baltimore report is grounded in some pretty sobering facts, which it doesn't try to disguise.

The city continues to lose people, particularly those who pay taxes. At midcentury, three-quarters of all living in the metro area resided inside city limits. Today, only about one-third -- but two-thirds of the region's poor -- live in the city, and their children attend public schools that are still struggling, after a 30-year slide, to catch up with the rest of the state.

Thus, the report notes a promising new development: There is suburban movement into the city. Mostly, it's young singles and older couples whose kids are grown. In both cases, it's people who no longer have direct concern with the schools.

Those folks are a promising focus for planners. A city is more than the sum of its miseries. It outlives those individuals who expire from the guns and the drugs. Unlike the tragic Len Bias, a city doesn't have to die at the end.

At the close of a rejuvenating Maryland Film Festival, you can look at the nighttime lights of Harborplace for inspiration, and sometimes beyond them to see what looks like the belated arrival of dawn.

Pub Date: 04/27/99

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