East side, west side: the despair, the hope

May 31, 2001|By Michael Olesker

UP HERE, ON the roof of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, on the west side of downtown Baltimore, you can see pretty far. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the 2000 block of E. North Ave., where a dozen people were shot the other night. Some of them wound up at Shock Trauma. At moments like this, the bodies seem to arrive from some other city altogether.

Thus the battle for Baltimore's future is joined once again. All around University of Maryland Medical Center, the west side of downtown blooms with possibilities. Many have begun, though they are still unseen from the street. On the east side of North Avenue, much that blooms seems to die. It is seen regularly in the news, through a veil of blood.

Which is the city of the future?

On the roof of Shock Trauma, Ronald M. Kreitner sweeps a hand across the landscape. He is executive director of West Side Renaissance Inc., the outfit coordinating the enormous undertaking to breathe new life into downtown's west side. It is the biggest municipal effort since Harborplace. Three cheers for this. It is also, at a time when most signs of the city's renewed health can be seen along the water's edge, an effort that finally takes the action inland. A hundred cheers for this.

But the city continues to battle against itself.

On the roof of Shock Trauma, we have Kreitner and Mark Wasserman, senior vice president of external affairs for the University of Maryland Medical System. They are pointing to construction all around: of new hospital and university offices, new state-of-the-art laboratories, new upscale housing, new theater, new business.

But will people arrive to enjoy it?

"Yes," says Wasserman.

"Yes," says Kreitner.

"At your own peril" is the message from the east side of North Avenue. It is far away, but at such moments it seems a shriek in the night. The shooting of 12 people is only part of it. A mindset, strong as any construction, has cemented itself there. The police talk of retaliation for last year's shooting of Keith "Bone" Hamlet as a motive. They talk of battles over narcotics turf.

What they don't talk about, because it isn't strictly their business, is the look of things. The 2000 block of E. North Ave. is a string of abandoned, boarded-up rowhouses. Many of the shells are shooting galleries for junkies. The sidewalk and streets are strewn with trash. On nearby side streets, young men with no visible means of support lurk on front steps. A sense of menace prevails.

All of this translates elsewhere. It shadows the construction downtown, and the money invested, and it chills those trying now to breathe new life into sections undernourished and all but abandoned for years.

"We think this is a big part of the recovery," Mark Wasserman is saying now, walking along Eutaw Street toward Lexington Market. It's a tricky area. Within eyesight, new housing goes up and the old Hippodrome Theater is being converted for live performances. But will people feel safe in a place that's had an abandoned feel for the last generation?

"Everybody who's comfortable with diversity will be comfortable here," says Wasserman. "We're real sensitive to this."

"Diversity" is, of course, a code word. It refers to the racial mix that still makes some people uneasy. The North Avenue shootings feed into that. The violence terrifies white people, some of whom mistakenly think it doesn't terrify black people.

What is happening on the west side of downtown is an attempt to pull Baltimore out of this skid.

"Right now," Wasserman says, "people have no reason to believe" in the west-side renovation. "They can't see anything."

Soon they will. On Eutaw Street, renovation of the Lexington Market has begun. A block east, on Howard Street, we have the ruins of the old department stores that once seemed to be the center of the world in Baltimore. They've been empty for years and still appear to be.

They are not. From the street, there is no sense of the enormous industry going on inside. The old Stewart's will mix commercial outlets with high-tech offices. The old Hecht Co. building will be luxury apartments. They're in the final stage of construction, set to open this summer as The Atrium at Market Center.

A studio apartment will go for about $700 a month, affordable for a student at one of the University of Maryland's professional schools. A two-bedroom will go for about $1,200. With a loft, about $1,900. Half of the units face a lovely atrium, half face the lights of downtown.

"We already have people calling in from all over the region," Kreitner says.

That includes Washington, whose residents have discovered Baltimore's cheaper housing possibilities, intimate settings, and nearness to D.C. offices.

"Where we've fallen down," Wasserman says, "is not letting people know just how far the west-side development has already come."

Over the next few months, that will change. The possibilities of rebirth are wondrous, challenged only by lingering shadows. There's one creeping in now from distant North Avenue, and it chills every corner of the city.

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