Development or destruction?

Documentary questions plans to revamp the West Side but leave out the West Siders.

Film

January 30, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

There's an amazing locally made documentary making its way onto screens these days. It's not playing at Sundance and it doesn't have a chance of being picked up by Miramax or the latest dot.com distributor on the Internet. But every Baltimorean should see it because its story touches everyone who cares about this city.

"Baltimore's West Side Story" was made last December by Neil Rubenstein of local production company RW Communications at the behest of attorney John Murphy, with the support of preservation groups Baltimore Heritage and Preservation Maryland. Murphy represents a number of small business owners who make their living in the downtown neighborhood bounded by Baltimore, Eutaw, Saratoga, and Liberty streets.

This area has been subject to a number of development plans recently, including the transformation of the Hippodrome Theater into a performing arts complex and Bank of America's announcement of their intention to turn the block bounded by Baltimore, Eutaw, Fayette and Howard streets into a mixed-use business and residential development as well as an "arts plaza." Other organizations seeking to redevelop the West Side include the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation and the University of Maryland.

An unspoken assumption behind the West Side plans is that the neighborhood is blighted and impoverished, with few viable businesses and a surfeit of unsightly, unsafe buildings. But "Baltimore's West Side Story" paints a different portrait. It turns out that many of the more than 100 buildings currently slated for condemnation are of significant architectural and historic value. What's more, they house vital, healthy businesses -- most owned by Korean immigrants who make their livings catering to a largely African-American clientele.

Judy and Lou Boulmetis own Hippodrome Hatters, at 15 N. Eutaw. Young Cho owns Wig House Beauty Salon on W. Lexington (the city wants to raze her business and turn it into a parking lot). Young Kim and Thurman Robinson own the Beauty Plus cosmetics store on the corner of W. Baltimore and Eutaw streets. Haing C. Eun owns Eagle Trading at 318 W. Baltimore. All of them have staked a claim in a neighborhood that the Baltimore Development Corporation -- the quasi-public agency that is overseeing the West Side development plans -- insists is marginal. As Lou Boulmetis says in the film, "We're far from blighted. We're thriving niche businesses. We're an eclectic conglomeration of shops and stops. We're patronized from all over."

The voices of these business people are persuasive, but the high point of "Baltimore's West Side Story" comes when former Mayor William Donald Schaefer takes the screen. "Many years ago," he recalls, "I was of the theory that if you tear all the buildings down and put something new up, that was the right thing to do. What a mistake that was."

The need for West Side economic development isn't in dispute, but "Baltimore's West Side Story" is saying it doesn't have to be at the expense of what's already there.

"What the city wants here is Gap or Old Navy or Banana Republic instead of Mrs. Park and Mrs. Cho," he says. "You go up to New York and there must be 1,000 Gap stores, [but] they're shoe-horned into places, in old buildings. The idea that you have to build a new shoe box for a Gap makes no sense."

There's something else that makes no sense, an equally compelling piece of the puzzle that "Baltimore's West Side Story" overlooks. Small business owners aren't the only West Siders fighting for their lives. There are also dozens of painters, sculptors, musicians and filmmakers who have been urban pioneers in the neighborhood for several years, working in some of the city's historic cast iron-fronted loft buildings.

Without zoning to allow them to work and live in the lofts, and with their buildings in danger of being condemned, they're leaving in droves. What developers see as a "pocket of performing arts" is becoming virtually artist-free.

Martha Colburn, whose short animated films have gained renown on the festival circuit and have been anthologized at the Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions, has been forced to move out of the building she lived and worked in for 10 years.

"It's just one more hit from a city that's already hard to live in," Colburn said last week from San Francisco, where she has been teaching filmmaking. "We've roughed it, basically, for a long time for the sake of our art and now many artists will probably go to another city, a more supportive environment." For her part, Colburn is doing everything she can to stay.

Just down the street from Colburn's loft, three artists recently lost their living and work space when fire engulfed the cast-iron-facade building at 423 W. Baltimore St. According to Flora McGarrell, who made digital videos, multi-media installations and costumes in the huge space, she and her roommates only made it out alive because they had installed smoke detectors.

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