Message to complainers: Baltimore is booming

Revitalization: From Canton to Cross Street to Locust Point, economic and social transformation are rampant.

March 25, 2000|By Jacques Kelly

I'M OFTEN AMUSED when Baltimoreans carp about the state of our little world. I hear that Eastern Avenue isn't looking good, that Lexington Street is a mess and that the York Road is nothing but a tangled strip mall.

People love to complain. But I often smile when I think of the places that have changed for the better -- often attaining a lofty status that these places never enjoyed before, even in the days when Baltimore's tax coffers overflowed and Judy Garland's pictures played the Century Theatre. There is, you see, an inverse aspect to Baltimore's fortunes.

Take for example, the Cross Street Market. My first trips there were in the early 1950s. I accompanied by grandmother, who lived just a few steps away. It was a place where you bought potatoes, onions and stewing beef. Gourmet items just did not exist.

She -- along with my father -- were close friends with Johnnie Nichols, a seafood dealer at the Charles Street end of the market. Today, Johnnie's part of the market remains a seafood operation, but it's a raw bar -- Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood -- and it is packed and jammed, a ritual among its regulars. Many of these imbibers do not live in South Baltimore. The place now has a regional pull.

Through the 1970s this was a place to buy honest, but hardly fancy, seafood. In season -- but only in season -- there would be crab meat. Old market characters like Johnnie Nichols would have little patience for the Saturday afternoon regulars six deep at what used to be his mound of iced steakfish and hake.

The transformation of the old industrial centers along the Jones Falls Valley and the harbor are prime examples of my inverse rule jacked up on steroids.

I wonder how many people who sip their Starbucks, buy a potted orchid at Smith and Hawken or range-roaming chicken at Fresh Fields in Mount Washington realize this was a drab nut-and-bolt factory not so long ago?

And what about all the tan and gray raincoat materials that were stored in the old London Fog plant? It's now Meadow Mill Athletic Club, with a parking lot filled with luxury sports utility vehicles.

Of all the changes that have transformed Baltimore, the economic -- and social -- transformation of the harbor shoreline is dramatic.

I'll bet the same people who make dinner reservations at the Atlantic Restaurant on Boston Street in Canton probably avoided the neighborhood when this site was the rattling, productive and energetic American Can Co.

The can-making plant's upper floors house some exceptionally well-designed offices, with desks and work stations worthy of the interiors shown in slick design magazines. It was here that the machines stamped out metal cans to hold peas and corn.

The old Procter & Gamble plant in Locust Point is filling up with a list of select tenants. It won't take long for the rooms that once housed the tallow for Ivory Liquid to be transformed into offices outfitted with $3,000 ash-veneer desks and halogen lighting fixtures, down the corridor from in-office gyms and coffee bars.

It's now called Tide Point and, mark my words, it will have the same cachet -- perhaps much more, given the dramatic views across the Patapsco -- as the opening of One Charles Center in 1962.

Perception is everything here. It was not very long ago that Hull Street was not a fancy address. Watch out. Things are changing as Baltimore sheds its rust-belt overalls and changes into Old Navy ware.

I sometimes fault Baltimoreans for not appreciating what we possess in our city. All too often, it takes a crew of public relations managers, architects and designers to do up and reinvent what was there all along -- at a fraction of its present-day refined price.

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