To see the city's changing face, wander into old neighborhoods

April 07, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

ALL MY LIFE I've admired the TastyKake sign that stood atop the rowhouse roof on North Avenue at Guilford Avenue. A huge sign with faded blue paint. Its clock hands were stopped perpetually - I think at 20 minutes past something.

The other night, when the city's traffic patterns went haywire because of a Jones Falls Expressway accident, I went home via a slightly different route than usual. And presto - the sign was gone. So was the whole block of North Avenue houses, whose westernmost unit supported it. The lot had been cleared and covered with yellow straw peeping through the clay and some scattered bits of freshly cleared debris.

The time had run out for this quirky advertising landmark atop the old building and for the neighboring houses on North Avenue. And, I guess, time is growing short for many Baltimore neighborhoods of similar age and fragile health. For a long time I thought that the city might somehow wiggle around all the ills present in our acres of 19th-century neighborhoods that residents have been abandoning for decades.

To make the loss all the more painful, I looked across the street at a row of fancy rowhouses that got saved a dozen years ago. I recall the developer applied for and got help to preserve these city mini-palaces. It showed that something can be done to keep old Baltimore standing.

If you want a crash course in the realities of Baltimore's continuing population drop, just visit a place where the tourists don't venture. House after house is abandoned. And yet, when you look at them, with their graceful proportions, limestone lintels and cornices labored over by some master carpenter, you think, what a waste. (The TastyKake sign was a loss too. How many good new signs do you see these days?)

The city's preservationists have been sounding the alarm about blocks of rowhouses being torn down, but, in truth, except for wholesale clearance in the Harlem Park-Sandtown-Winchester sections on West Baltimore, I haven't seen the expanses of vacant fields some have been predicting.

Indeed, much of old Baltimore seems to be standing, but I have to ask, for how long? Do people really want to live in long and narrow rowhouses? Do people want more than brick-and-mortar streets? And yet, haven't I lived in this environment all my life, and don't I think it's fine? And, on the plus side, are there not a handful of new housing groups being finished - some in the harbor and, come to think of it, some at North Avenue and Eutaw Place.

There's no getting around the fact that chunks of Baltimore are worn out and need of lot of fixing. Not all the houses were built to the same standards. Some were gems. Others were cheaply constructed and did their duty for a long time. But their days are numbered.

The city's loss of population does not torture me - recall just how overcrowded Baltimore was in the 1950s and 1960s, when too many front door frames were covered with bells and mailboxes for all the apartments and rooming units. The city was still feeling the effects of World War II living pressures.

It's a different city today, and we need to adjust. Like the disappearing TastyKake sign and the North Avenue houses, it'll take some getting used to the Baltimore that will unfold in the 21st century. For a city that resists change in so many delightful ways, it's going to be a tough experience.

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