Waiting for springtime on the west side

April 22, 2001|By Michael Olesker

SOON, EVERYONE is assured, spring will come to the west side of Baltimore's downtown. Soon there will be sophisticates attending the theater and young medical students running amok in the street. Soon the suburbanites who once dressed up to go strolling through department stores will rediscover their urban shopping instincts. Soon, money and charm will return.

In the meantime, we have Bonnie Wooding of the Baltimore Police Department. She is a 13-year veteran of the force, with a 19-year-old and 2-year-old triplets at home, and she stood on Eutaw Street outside the Lexington Market the other morning and listened as two young ladies engaged in a brief dialogue, to wit:

"Get the bleep out of my bleepity-bleepin' face with that bleep-bleep," said the first, in her eloquent way.

"Get the bleep out of my own bleepity-bleepin' face," said the second, equally charming.

"And those," said Officer Wooding, "are the ladies."

And yet, we are told, hope springs eternal in the city, for there is no limit to good things where $350 million is concerned. This is the famous price tag on redevelopment for downtown's west side. And last week, the figure went up.

Now City Hall talks of 25 more small-business condemnations, and more room for University of Maryland professional schools to expand, taking them to the very doors of the Lexington Market.

When they get there, they will find Officer Wooding. She will not be alone. Inside the market are all the familiar culinary charms and the loveliest feature of America: the ethnic melting pot in its full flowering - not only customers but vendors whose roots are in Asia and Africa and Europe and bring to the market the full cosmopolitan warmth.

If you can make your way inside.

Out there with Officer Wooding and other security types are those citizens who simply show up each day and, wittingly or not, intimidate many who would embrace both the old market bouquet and the new west-side charms now being plotted in boardrooms and banks.

"It's actually not that bad," says Wooding. "But there's the drug rehab center up the street" - and other drug programs within walking distance - "and they just want to come down and congregate. Day to day, the worst thing down here is loitering. But there's definitely a perception problem."

Some would say Wooding is being kind. There are business people who claim drug transactions are routine around the market. There is also, in the collective Baltimore memory, the videotaped police shooting of a few summers ago that was half a block from the market but came to be known, in TV news shorthand, as the Lexington Market shooting.

And there is a quarter-century history, minimum, of downtown's west side falling into shabby disrepair and abandonment.

Soon, we are told, this will change. Last week, City Council President Sheila Dixon introduced a bill to expand condemnation to 25 existing west-side properties - abandoned buildings, but also barbershops, restaurants and a nightclub - in what was seen as a sign of growing optimism for the city's biggest renewal project since Harborplace.

But we head toward a kind of philosophical confrontation here: What do we do about so many people congregating on the streets, against whom no criminal charges have been filed but whose mere presence is seen by many as a threat?

They are citizens. Many are without much money, and some have troubled histories. They will not be attending the great theatrical events City Hall envisions. But their entertainment, as valid as anybody's, is to gather on the street with friends.

"Well, there's the problem, isn't it?" says Richard Spell Jr., who has the American Bison T-Shirt Company stall on Paca Street just outside the market's west side. He's selling shirts with religious paintings on the front. "See, you need people who appreciate the finer things, people who have some money to spend. That way, everybody benefits, and you don't have to raise that property tax.

"But then, you look at some of the folks hangin' out, and it's scary to the average person. They're so busy hanging onto their pocketbooks, they don't want to stop and see what I'm selling."

Inside the market last week, there was Frank Guerassio, owner of Lefty's Produce Stall. He's been there for 30 years.

"Look around," he said. "Where are all the young people who are supposed to be moving into this neighborhood, all those medical students and stuff? They're not here. They're scared. It's all old people, who come here out of habit. Where are all those people from these new apartments? We don't see 'em. They're afraid."

Officer Wooding may be right: Perception of danger is worse than the reality. But perception takes on a life of its own. And sometimes it is more powerful than money or wrecking balls or all the promise of springtime said to be arriving soon on downtown's west side.

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