Nostalgia fuels hope for city's renewal

This Just In...

September 13, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

A WOMAN sent me a photograph of the large rowhouses of North Broadway in the 1940s. It was exquisite -- shiny black cars parked along the curb, large and healthy trees, American flags flying from poles anchored just below second-floor windows, clean marble steps, women and children on the sidewalk. Today the same area has abandoned houses, trash-strewn streets and, in some blocks, no signs of life at all.

Is it unrealistic to wish North Broadway could be what it was, that a photograph taken 10 years from now might show the same block restored to its once-thriving condition? Is it possible to draw people back to those old houses before they crumble? Is it possible that a new generation of young men and women, repelled from the suburbs by the crush of population there and attracted to the sense of opportunity near Johns Hopkins Hospital, will settle in that neighborhood and re-establish it as a great good place?

Call me a fool, but I'm going into the voting booth tomorrow with that hope in my heart, one more time.

Twelve years ago, on the day Kurt Schmoke was elected mayor, I was in the same neighborhood to get the story of an evicted woman. She'd slept on a dislodged concrete stoop the night before. The block where she roamed was as bleak as any in the city. I remember being awed by the challenge the new mayor was accepting -- the downtown Baltimore renaissance, undercut by poverty and abandonment on a huge scale.

The Schmoke years have gone, and not much seems to have changed around that particular stretch of North Broadway, except the names of politicians on the campaign posters.

But I still have this hope that the next mayor will adopt a policy of hope and renewal instead of surrender and defeat.

People think you're being unrealistic when you say these things.

Some think you're afflicted with the local disease -- nostalgia.

I don't know whether Baltimoreans are more nostalgic than anyone else, but I've heard newcomers to this town make that observation. Maybe it was that long mourning period for the Colts, or all those complaints about the abandonment of Memorial Stadium. Maybe all those semisweet Barry Levinson movies give the impression Baltimoreans are stuck in the past.

My own theory is this: Baltimoreans are openly nostalgic because change in their lives came rapidly and intensely, and they haven't had enough time to accept it. Older Baltimoreans, middle-age to elderly, black and white, struggle with it. "They have been on an emotional roller coaster," says Arthur Murphy, a political consultant and analyst.

Think about it. Forty years being a mere sliver of time, Baltimore has been through seismic changes. Has the city ever recovered from the loss of thousands of industrial jobs? You can connect a lot of things to that -- the lingering poverty of the inner city, the loss of major retailers, the loss in population, the decline in port business.

As recently as the 1970s, a young man might have considered a future in a steel mill in or near Baltimore. Within the past 25 years, we might have looked at dirty skies and smokestacks as a sign of the community's health. That whole landscape, the centerpiece of life of thousands of Baltimoreans for most of this century, has changed.

Earlier this year, when I spoke with several people in Turners Station, the African-American community near Bethlehem Steel, they expressed nostalgia for the everyday rhythm of life, the streetcars filled with lunch-box heroes headed to Sparrows Point, a neighborhood alive with kids. Kweisi Mfume, who grew up there and still visits now and then, remembered grown-ups sitting around, talking and listening to prizefights on the radio under a tree. Mfume was nostalgic for that sense of small town he got from Turners Station that thrived during the big, blast-furnace days at Bethlehem Steel.

There are people who express the same feelings for Pennsylvania Avenue, Highlandtown, Monument Street, Lombard Street, Patterson Park and Pigtown.

Corny? Wistful?

Maybe.

But if being nostalgic is wishing for small-town life, or neighborhood life, or for easy public transportation, or for small businesses owned by people who live in the community, or for public parks that are clean and safe, or if home is a street where everyone knows your name, where people are actually outdoors with their neighbors, instead of indoors with their TV sets and computers, then call me nostalgic, too.

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