City wears story upon its walls

April 24, 2000|By Jamie Hunt

ONE OF THE most striking exhibits in the Blaustein Exhibition Center at the City Life Museums was a two-story mural showing a vista of Howard Street at mid-century, looking north from Fayette. Though the exodus to the suburbs was under way, the department stores a block ahead on Lexington Street were still thriving temples of commerce set amidst bustling specialty stores.

This was no nostalgia piece, however. In the foreground a group of African-Americans and whites march together, bearing placards demanding equal access for all races to the stores in this shopping mecca. Thus did the mural deftly show the fruits of the labor of generations of shop-owning immigrants -- Jewish, German, Irish, Italian, Greek and others -- and the aspirations of those who had long been denied their civil rights.

Though City Life closed in 1997, that vista still exists in real life, largely unchanged. The department stores have new tenants, some "festive" arches have been added, and there's a want of maintenance and repair in some places. But Howard Street's Federal, Italianate, Beaux Arts and Art Deco facades still bear powerful testimony to this city's history, as do the thriving, mostly immigrant -- and minority -- owned shops in the area.

For now. If the city and a local foundation have their way, this part of Howard Street -- just a long fly ball from Camden Yards -- and two blocks of Lexington Street will be going, going, gone.

For some, this won't happen soon enough. A recent

cf03 Sun

cf01 editorial lamented the lack of progress in the almost two years since the West Side Master Plan, funded by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, was released. It further blasted preservationists and area merchants for causing the delay, accusing them of "hijacking" the Howard Street revitalization initiative in the past couple of months just as it was about to get going.

For preservationists, it was dj vu all over again. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city declared Mt. Vernon Place blighted, and drew up plans to tear down three of the four blocks facing Washington Monument. In the 1960s and 1970s, the city declared the same of Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton, and drew up plans to run a highway across Federal Hill Park and through those neighborhoods. Preservationists were criticized then, too, but their efforts have paid the city rich dividends in property taxes alone.

Though neither merchants nor preservation organizations such as Baltimore Heritage and Preservation Maryland were invited to be part of the West Side Task Force that issued the master plan in June 1998, they have from the beginning sought input. Among other things, they offered a preservation-based alternative plan. Where the master plan called for the demolition of all or part of nine blocks -- displacing 80 small businesses and demolishing 75 buildings that contribute to the Market Center National Historic District -- the alternative showed that large anchor stores and parking garages could be accommodated on existing surface lots and by tearing down nonhistorical buildings.

This is in accordance with the city's own urban renewal ordinance for the West Side, which calls for the preservation of historical streetscapes and for encouraging small, locally owned businesses. Not that the city is paying attention.

Perhaps when the bills start coming due, the city will start paying attention. Leaving aside the value of historic preservation to the city's tourism industry and the city's inept and unfair treatment of the affected merchants (at least some of whom will attempt to recoup their losses in expensive legal battles), the West Side Master Plan doesn't come cheap.

For example, in the aforementioned area of Howard and Lexington streets, the Weinberg Foundation proposes to demolish 52 buildings and displace roughly that many merchants to build a mall. The city will have to pay more than $10 million to buy the buildings the foundation doesn't own, according to State Department of Assessment and Taxation records. According to lawyers for the merchants, it's conceivable that the price will be double that. And that doesn't include the cost of relocating the merchants, demolishing the buildings and building new utilities to serve the mall.

Fortunately, Baltimore doesn't have to go that route. I believe preservationists are committed to working with the city and Weinberg Foundation to develop a plan that accommodates large national anchors and small local merchants -- just as Boston, Philadelphia and Denver already have. Mayor Martin O'Malley should intervene to make that happen.

Otherwise, the mayor might want to add another song by Irish rockers "The Pogues" to his band's play list. It's called "White City," and it goes, in part, like this:

"O sweet city of my dreams

Of speed and skill and schemes

Like Atlantis

You just disappeared from view --"

James C. "Jamie" Hunt, a cranky old man at age 37 and quite possibly brain damaged from too many years of playing rugby, is president of the Radnor-Winston Improvement Association, vice president of Baltimore Heritage Inc., a member of the board of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point, and an employee of Preservation Maryland.

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