City's rich heritage is at stake on Redwood St.

September 21, 2000|By Michael Olesker

WE ARE different here in Bawlamer. Some of us talk funny, and some of us might look a little funny, and the beauty of this is our self-perception: In the great homogenization of America, we've learned to appreciate the fact that we're not exactly like everybody else in America.

The same is true of our buildings. You want a shopping mall, go find yourself a suburb. You want bland, the Beltway's over there. You want a little sense of history, a little sense of what we looked like long ago, a little sense of the enduring nature of that thing called a community - take a walk through the city.

But, today, don't take a walk around Light and Redwood streets, because the sight will remind you: We're giving up pieces of the things that make us unique. In pursuit of the dollar, we sometimes give up a heritage. The wrecking ball has arrived at Light and Redwood, aiming at two ornate, multistory, handsome, old office buildings, and it's not a pretty picture today.

Much of the old Merchants and Miners Transportation Co. building, at 17 Light St., built around the time of the great Baltimore fire of 1904, was punched in late Monday night. The adjacent Sun Life Insurance Co. building, constructed in 1916, awaited the same fate. In Tuesday's rain, protesters attempting to hold back the future marched around the fenced-in area. They might have roused a few people's sense of conscience. But they couldn't stop the beginning of the destruction.

The red brick Merchants and Miners building looked like an old lady who has been mugged on the street, and everybody's turning away in embarrassment because her bloomers are showing. You could look into the building's ruins and see things that once decorated people's lives: an old wooden bookcase, the remains of a picture frame, Venetian blinds.

"A nice-looking building," somebody said, peering at the remains, and the rubble in the street, through a chain link fence that closed off Redwood Street.

"Doesn't look as nice as it did last week," said Harry Young. He is 76 years old. He's had his own little contracting firm here since 1954. "Evidently, it was situated in the way of what they call progress."

The Marriott Corp. wants to put a 125-room Marriott Residence Inn hotel over the rubble. Young can appreciate such a thing, having spent nearly half a century working on such jobs. He understands how money is grown, and cross-fertilizes, and everybody gets a piece of it.

Also, though, he's been around long enough to understand the feel of things. And he stood there yesterday, and looked a little wistful. Directly across from the beginnings of the new rubble was another pile of rubble, formerly known as the Southern Hotel.

"Oh, the times we had there," he said. "The Hawaiian Room, where people went to party. And then" - he swept a hand slightly north, directly next door to the rubble of the old Southern Hotel, to 5 Light St., the former C&P Telephone Co. building. It, too, is marked for the wrecking ball.

"I had my office there for years," Young said. "The place was full of phone company operators for the overseas lines."

Now there were construction workers standing between the Southern Hotel rubble, and the Merchants and Miners rubble, waiting to be told what to do next. They had managed to wipe out most of the top three floors of the Merchants and Miners building before Judge Charles E. Moylan Jr. signed a late-night temporary injunction halting the demolition.

So, for a while, as everyone awaits one more day in court, the corner of Light and Redwood will simply sit there as one grotesque mess - and as a reminder to all those who care about the city that we have sensitive and tricky decisions to make in this time of fluid money, and desire to breathe new life into downtown.

We do not wish to be a community of building huggers, but we do not wish to give up the things that help define us. For 20 years now, we have sustained ourselves, financially and emotionally, with the tourist dollars. Mainly, the tourists come for the delights of the famous Inner Harbor.

But that diminishes us, and them, if it is all that defines Baltimore to them. For all the marvelous things happening not only around Harborplace but in all the city's waterfront neighborhoods, there are still all those streets just beyond the water - full of history, full of irreplaceable architecture - that make us the unique place that we are. We are not a city believing its charms lie in chain hotels and chain restaurants. Those things, you can get in any city.

"Heck, there's a lot of things I miss," Harry Young was saying yesterday. He looked down Light Street toward the harbor. "Harborplace is nice," he said. "But I can remember when the banana boats used to come in, and you had the open produce markets, and the railroad trains would come down Pratt, and turn up Light Street to Key Highway, where you had the old Menhaden Fish Oil Company."

You could smell the produce in the air when he said it, and practically hear the sounds of the old marketplace. Those things aren't coming back. But some things are worth holding onto, and the city has to decide where to draw that delicate line between progress and heritage before the wrecking balls arrive and it's too late for any debate.

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