On finding Alex. Brown's ghost walking in Fells Point

October 14, 2001|By JAY HANCOCK

IWAS walking through Fells Point last Sunday, looking for a sports bar to catch the Ravens-Titans game, when the streetscape blurred and shifted like a view in a kaleidoscope.

The big, brick Recreation Pier building suddenly faded into a smudge of twilight. A three-masted clipper ship hove into view at a wooden wharf, and a nearby pedestrian in a ruffled shirt and granny glasses looked over at me.

"Nice Austin Powers getup," I said. "But the Bohager's Halloween party isn't for another three weeks."

"Powers," said the man. "I believe I knew him. Was he a chandler in County Antrim? But my name is Brown. Alexander Brown."

"Brown," I shivered. "Alex. Brown was an Irishman who founded the famous Baltimore investment bank of the same name. But he died in 1834. Surely you ... "

"I am the same person," the ghost said. "I died, but my spirit remained. As did my business venture - for a time."

"Of course!" I said. "Deutsche Bank, the people who bought the firm, decided to scrap the Alex. Brown name, more or less. It was in the paper. And now your spirit is restless, right? You've come back to haunt Deutsche Bank Chairman Rolf Breuer."

"No, no," the specter said. "I am attending to other matters. I had an engagement with you, for one thing."

"With me?"

"Certainly. Communing with spirits is a required columnists' cliche, honored by decades of abuse. Your professional guild will penalize you if you are not visited by apparitions every so often."

"Gee, thanks," I said. "But aren't you angry? Alex. Brown was a marquee corporate name in Baltimore. For two centuries. The company still flies the flag designed for your merchantmen. And look, Alex - can I call you Alex? - now they're getting rid of the name, except maybe for the private banking division."

"You may call me Mr. Brown," said the ghost. "As for the name of the venture, it is of no importance. What matters is whether a firm can gain the public's confidence and custom. If the proprietors believe the Deutsche Bank name will serve that purpose, then that is their choice to make."

"But they transferred tons of jobs to New York," I protested. "The research desk here is down to six analysts. This was your town. Alex. Brown was a billion-dollar powerhouse. Now Baltimore is just another dinky branch office for Deutsche Bank. We might as well be in Potsdam or somewhere."

The shade grew agitated and stepped back.

"Sir, I did not become one of America's first millionaires by being overly particular about where I conducted trade, and I hope that Deutsche Bank operates on the same principle. In the 1820s, when Baltimore's location deep inside the Chesapeake caused it to lose trans-Atlantic shipping business, I, too, moved positions to New York, as well as Philadelphia.

"I am very fond of Baltimore, but if not for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which revived your port, my firm would not have stayed here."

"Well, it's just discouraging, Al," I replied. "Baltimore breeds all these powerful corporate headquarters only to lose them in mergers. The people down at the Museum of Industry are probably setting up an Alex. Brown diorama next to the Bromo-Seltzer and National Bohemian booths right now."

"You are too hard on the city," the spirit said. "Even now Deutsche Bank employs more than 1,000 in the area. Baltimore remains a great center of culture and commerce, a global model for cities seeking rebirth.

"Do not dwell on the past," the ghost admonished. "No matter what happens to my firm, the capital I helped accumulate will remain, nourishing Baltimore's philanthropies and new business ventures, some greater than mine. But beware how you treat this bequest! Your civic authorities seem indifferent to attracting and keeping investment and have again become lax in the matter of taxes."

"Taxes," said I. "You think we should raise them? Me too. I was thinking the Maryland Office of Procurement and Logistics looked a little understaffed lately."

"Fool," said Brown. "Let me remind you of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Maryland, in 1827. By resisting and overturning a Maryland law that required a $50 license for international trade, my firm struck a blow against taxes by forever preventing states from levying tariffs on imports and exports.

"We prevailed then, but government will always slip a hand in one's pocket," said the apparition. "Not long ago Maryland's commercial leaders seemed concerned that high taxes and bad regulations were costing the state jobs, but the protest subsided. Maryland's taxes are still higher than those of its neighbors. Do not wait for the next slump before remembering that capital investment does not happen automatically."

"Gotcha," I said, getting it all down. "Now you're going to start shimmering and do a Star Trek teleport thing and vanish, right?"

"Not yet," the merchant said. "I would like to see the Ravens kick some Titan keister. Shall we repair to the Greene Turtle?"

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