For shops, it's the small ones that mean so much

July 29, 2000|By JACQUES KELLY

On a visit last week to Albany, N.Y., I experienced a twinge of recognition. I was staying in a downtown hotel and taking my meals a some of the town's downtown restaurants. Well-fed and satisfied, I got to thinking about what makes a city work.

The restaurants I enjoyed - and which so added to the life of this city - were in little, 19th-century buildings peppered throughout the downtown. The fare was good and well-priced. I suspected, but had no way of knowing, that the rents were low or moderate. The restaurants were also packed with customers.

I got to thinking about the fate of all the buildings being considered for urban renewal action along Howard, Lexington and the other streets along the west side of downtown Baltimore. For two years now the fate of this area has come under scrutiny. There have been big, bold plans promoted - said to drive out these small entrepreneurs and their rather untidy melange of shops and service.

I been delighted to observe that more recently there has been a outpouring of sympathy for the existing merchants. Many of them have invested heavily in downtown Baltimore.

Ever the fan of these places, I got to thinking: When you visit a city, do you remember the big urban renewal plazas or the small shops and places tucked into old-fashioned streets and alleyways?

In Albany, for example, I ran away from a huge public plaza of state government buildings that looks like some sort of Brasilia dropped into the middle of a 19th-century neighborhood. On the other hand, I walked for miles as I enjoyed a 1931 movie palace, old railroad stations (remade into office buildings), checking out Kinko's branches in former bank lobbies and looking at Romanesque revival clock towers.

Over this summer I've spent a bit of time walking the streets of the part of Baltimore where I shopped a lot in the 1950s through the 1980s. As the big department stores closed (it's hard to believe that the downtown Hochschild Kohn went in 1977) I had less reason to visit this part of downtown.

In the last decade, a new group of merchants has filled in the spots of the businesses I knew years ago. They cater to people who probably don't own automobiles and still like the convenience of shopping downtown.

These are stores that probably drive some university-educated city planners crazy. These are businesses that don't possess e-commerce online addresses, where you will never receive a slick printed catalog when you visit. The two or three generations of suburban-born, mall-reared people that rarely go downtown probably wouldn't know what to make of this sort of shopping experience, which I took for granted back in 1965.

Would it kill Baltimore to have an inventory of small business spaces, adjacent to our offices and sports parks, where the rents were low and where small restaurants could offer a $12 dinner?

One thing has happened over the past year. Judging by the response to some of the big urban renewal plans being touted for Howard Street, there has been loud popular support for saving the streets where Baltimoreans have shopped for so long.

There have been letters to the editor. There have been merchant protests. Preservation groups have made their case. And now, in the summer of 2000, there seems to be some sort of a preservation truce. It didn't come a minute too soon.

Brasilia is fine for Brazil. Just let Baltimore remain Baltimore.

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