Juggling west-side revival and our past

April 11, 2000|By Michael Olesker

IN YESTERDAY'S early morning chill on Eutaw Street, two young guys wearing headphones and hooded sweat shirts leaned against the front of the former Hippodrome Theater, oblivious to the immediate world around them, and to all current debate over this crucial downtown real estate, and perhaps to all history.

The city of Baltimore, attempting to revive the west side of downtown, wishes to remind us of the former glories of the Hippodrome and entice us with grand possibilities for the neighborhood around it. It tells us of Frank Sinatra performing there in the '40s. It talks of the crowds dressed up like prom night well into the '50s. It invites us to stretch our imagination.

Me, I remember the dope dealer James Wesley "Big Head Brother" Carter parking his gangster limo outside the Hippodrome at lunchtime in the '70s so he could show off the chrome and the custom TV and the minibar built into the back, while an entire neighborhood deteriorated like a bone cancer all around him.

There is history, and there is history. As the city wrestles over its west-side development plans with preservationists, and with nervous merchants clinging to their livelihoods, it is also asking itself the poignant question: What do we do with our past?

This involves not only architecture and pop culture, but a history of people scuffling to make a living who happen to mean something to us. Or, as a recent letter from the Baltimore Architecture Foundation nicely put it:

"For 200 years, the west side of downtown Baltimore has been an entrepreneurial melting pot where waves of immigrants and minorities have found economic opportunity and created an irreplaceable urban fabric where 1820s Federal townhouses are found around the corner from 1930s Art Deco department stores.

"Jewish merchants built mercantile palaces on the west side; Babe Ruth's father, a bar; H.L. Mencken's father, a cigar factory. Edgar Allan Poe's grandfather, who provisioned Washington's troops at Valley Forge, kept a store on the west side; 175 years later, African-Americans were still fighting for the freedom to shop where and when they wanted there."

These are pretty stirring words, and maybe even important ones. We are a community that treasures our history, because it tells us how we got here, and it differentiates us from everybody else on the planet.

But when do we say: It is time to move on?

"I'm the first one to whip out the violins and sing the sad songs," James C. "Jamie" Hunt, director of development and communications for the Society for the Preservation of Maryland Antiquities, was saying yesterday. "But it's more than that."

It has to be. To a city that has watched the former commercial heart of its downtown crumble, and felt its energy dissipate, and watched thousands of people move away, all arguments about unique architectural facades now seem a little precious.

Yes, Babe Ruth's father had a bar; but the place became a strip joint 30 years ago, and nobody's quite holding it up as a Chamber of Commerce delight today. Yes, the Hippodrome once had live performers; but the owners directed black patrons to sit strictly in the balcony for many years. Yes, there were great art deco department stores; but their owners discovered suburbia and fled without a second thought to architectural preservation.

Thus, says Hunt, "We know the argument has to be broader than that. There are buildings that are munged up, and they can certainly be demolished. But some can be saved. It's difficult to put up something with charm. You're not gonna be able to afford the masonry craftsmanship."

Current plans call for the removal of 52 west-side merchants. The city is supposed to pay each of them $10,000 to relocate. This comes to $520,000. Then, between the cost of buying these old buildings from their owners, and demolishing them, Hunt figures a cost of about $24 million. Not to mention an estimated $360,000 in annual property taxes that are now paid but will disappear until new tenants move in.

"Do we want to spend all this just to get a mall?" Hunt asks.

This, too, is a concern. The city talks of new charms and new vitality, but we want to be certain we're not creating the sterility of another Charles Center.

Hunt, and others, reach for compromise. He thinks 30 of the 52 buildings could be preserved, and allow current merchants to stay there instead of being tossed out. Their argument is: When other merchants were blowing town, these folks stayed.

There's truth to that, but also some reconfiguration of memory. Some of these folks arrived because rent was cheap and stayed for that reason. Is it fair to simply let these businesses die? Of course not. But does the city continue to allow patchwork operations to stand in the way of long-overdue municipal rebirth?

"These are good people," Hunt says. "Maybe they aren't dressed up, and maybe they aren't clean-cut. But they're working people. Say what you want about the scruffiness of the Lexington Market, the place draws 4 million people a year."

Like those two guys outside the Hippodrome Theater yesterday morning, with their hooded sweat shirts and their headphones, who seem oblivious to the world outside the music playing in their heads. They're nobody's Ivy Leaguers, but they're people who go to work each day. They're part of the neighborhood, too, and part of the equation.

When we tear down buildings, how much history can we afford to obliterate? But, after so much lost time, is some of this history unnecessarily standing in our way?

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