Car towing, tickets fail as ideas for city welcome

July 25, 2000|By Michael Olesker

THE WOMAN on the telephone at Greenwood Towing Inc. had a voice full of early-morning weariness. It was only Monday, and she sounded as if she wanted to go home and hide under the covers for the rest of the decade.

"Let me assume," she said, "that you're calling about the cars that were towed over Artscape weekend."

Bingo!

The city opens its arms in all the most beautiful ways with Artscape, its annual love song to itself, but turns this delightful hour into a punch in the mouth every time the cops, or the tow trucks, decide to get picky.

In glorious Bolton Hill, where parking spots were at a premium, uniformed officers were writing tickets for cars sticking slightly over crossing lines.

At other locations, those minions of the dreaded Greenwood Towing showed up, did their thing, and when folks returned they were left to wonder: Was my car stolen?

When David Bennett, 35, a sales rep for an industrial company, showed up with three friends, and they parked their car Saturday - well, Bennett's honest enough to say that he took a chance.

He and three friends parked at one of several bank parking lots around Charles and Preston streets. The lot had plenty of cars there, but plenty of spaces still available.

Also, there was a sign saying, "For Bank Patrons Only" - but it was 5 o'clock Saturday afternoon. There were no patrons. So, in the glad spirit of the Artscape festival, and in the common sense perception that the bank's business was done, he parked. And he was towed.

"There were a couple of other cars pulling up when we did," Bennett said yesterday, "and everybody said, `Yeah, we're going to Artscape.' So, great. Then we got back, and the car's gone. At first we thought it was stolen. But a man who lives there told us, `Nope, you were towed. I was here when they towed you. They towed a bunch of cars.' The man said he parked his car on the same lot all the time after bank hours. Why not? Who's hurt? And this is when we went to retrieve the car, and we really got furious."

When they got to Greenwood Towing on North Avenue and discovered they would have to pay $200 to get the car back, Bennett and friends noticed a sheet of paper by the cashier's desk.

"It was an internal memo, on a board just inside the cashier's window," Bennett said, "specifically listing places to target during Artscape weekend. And the bank where we parked the car was one of them. I said to the cashier, `How does it feel to be involved in such a terrible business?'

"You know, we try to encourage people to come in to the city. Have you ever seen a sign that says, `Artscape parking here?' You come in to have a good time, and you want people from Bel Air and the rest of suburbia to rediscover city life - and then you make them pay this kind of a price. You think people are coming back who have their cars towed for $200?"

Yesterday, Burke Greenwood Jr., owner of Greenwood Towing, said he was "really not sure" how many cars his trucks towed from the Artscape area last weekend.

"You have to understand," Greenwood said, "we're licensed to do private towing. Our clients own private property, and we've contracted with them to tow cars. If they own the real estate and don't want anything there, it's their prerogative."

Asked about a list of specific target areas for Artscape weekend, Greenwood said, "I'll get back to you on that."

He did not call back, and he was unavailable when a follow-up call was made.

This is a no-brainer, is it not? Baltimore's festivals - Artscape, Fells Point, the ethnic gatherings, the tall ships at the Inner Harbor - aren't just excuses for a good time.

They're a city's poignant reminder to itself that we are a cosmopolitan mix, that we find comfort with each other - and that, despite the famous homicide numbers, despite the street crime in certain parts of town - hundreds of thousands of us enjoy mixing and feel safe doing it.

And we want those who fled the city, who live in suburbia and still see it as an act of faith every time they head downtown, to understand that Baltimore is more than a collection of crime statistics - and more than a place that welcomes you with one arm and slaps towing gear onto your car with the other.

"We come to Artscape every year," David Bennett was saying yesterday, happy to have his car back but not too happy about the price for it. "And we thoroughly enjoy it. But I live in the city, and part of the fun is bringing people in from the suburbs who are still, let's face it, afraid of the city. They fear the crime. And every year, it's so nice to see their eyes open up, and to realize what a lovely time you can have here."

It's not just Artscape they see. It's Bolton Hill looking like an elegant lady. It's the Lyric and the Meyerhoff, and the kids from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and the little brick campus of the University of Baltimore, and the funky new Charles Theatre around the corner.

In so many ways, the city has begun a heartwarming comeback, which it should show off every time it gets the chance. It makes no sense to nickel-and-dime anyone - or hit them for $200 - or waste uniformed officers on parking violations, when it should be throwing kisses and putting out the welcome mat.

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