A stubborn fire that burned for hours yesterday morning destroyed two stores at Oldtown Mall, a struggling strip of retail outlets east of Baltimore's downtown that symbolizes failed urban revitalization.
Wrecking crews knocked down the smoldering remains of a variety store and a hat shop in the heart of Oldtown Mall at lunchtime shortly after firefighters put out the smoky blaze that was first reported about 8: 15 a.m. The mall is near Ensor and Monument streets.
The fire started in a four-story narrow brick rowhouse built at the turn of the century in the 500 block of Oldtown Mall, a part of Gay Street closed to traffic and turned into a red brick pedestrian thoroughfare.
The top floors were vacant, but the ground level housed Solo Variety III, one of three shops owned by David Gathers. The fire quickly spread to a smaller, attached building that housed Fashion Wig & Hat Shop.
Firefighters based across the street at Oldtown Fire Station arrived within minutes to find smoke pouring from second- and third-floor windows. Moments later, the back of the building collapsed.
Unable to get inside safely, firefighters turned their hoses on the building's exterior, but could not get to the heart of the flames. After about an hour, a firefighter in a cherry-picker used a powerful saw to remove the ornate wooden facade, letting loose a tower of flame and smoke and enabling water to reach the burning interior.
"Whenever you are bailing water through windows and openings, you are not sure how effective you are," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres. "The fire was traveling in concealed spaces. It makes it tough."
More than 50 firefighters brought the blaze under control shortly after 10 a.m., but investigators have not determined a cause or where the fire started.
Gathers said he bought the building and business five years ago and did not have insurance. He estimated his losses at $83,000.
"Right now, I just don't know what I'm going to do," Gathers said. "My business was doing well. I considered myself one of the lucky ones. I was selling everything out of there."
"We have insurance," is all Nahn Young Choi could say as she arrived to open Beauty Island, located next to the variety store. Firefighters cut through her metal security door to check the store, which suffered smoke damage.
While the fire consumed two stores, trucks and hoses blocked the wide walkway and kept customers from reaching shops. Many merchants stared at the spectacle from the inside of their stores, knowing that shoppers would be hard to come by yesterday.
The fire occurred weeks after the city acquired the last of several buildings in the next block that it plans to demolish to make way for a new supermarket, drugstore and bank -- the beginning of a multimillion-dollar revitalization first promised six years ago.
"Everybody that is here should get a gold medal," said Stanley Zerden, president of the Oldtown Merchants Association. About 45 of the 90 stores -- selling everything from shoes to meat -- are occupied.
Bruce Smith, a spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, mentioned several stumbling blocks to fixing up the area, including finding tenants to take a chance on a neighborhood that is trying to make a comeback.
The Belair Market merchants, at the southern end of the mall, were concerned about increased competition from newcomers, which delayed public hearings for months.
Then, Smith said, the city's development team determined that more space was needed. "We had to amend the urban renewal plan to take down buildings on the south side of the mall," Smith said. "Obviously, that takes time."
The deadline for proposals to redevelop the mall is today, but Smith said none has come in. "Let's hope we have some in by this time tomorrow," he said.
The pedestrian mall began as a farmers' market in the early 1890s, when the city line ended at North Avenue and much of the land beyond was agricultural.
Over the years, the mall has gone through tough times. Rebuilt from the ashes of the 1968 riot, it was looted during the blizzard of 1979. The city made it a priority in 1993 after a decade of sluggish sales and shuttered storefronts.
Zerden said the 400 block of Oldtown Mall was supposed to have been torn down and rebuilt by the time Pleasant View Gardens, a few blocks to the south, was finished. That project, which replaced the Lafayette Courts public housing complex, was completed in 1996.
Construction plans have given merchants hope that their shopping district will be restored. But they note a new housing commissioner, chosen by the city's new mayor who takes office Tuesday, will make the final decision.
"I won't believe it until I see the brick and mortar going up," Zerden said. "But we're much farther along than we have been."