Mount Vernon makeover thwarted by more than traffic

City Diary

October 17, 2001|By CHRISTOPHER MULDER

Few comparable big-city residential areas in the United States have proven as resistant to revitalization as Mount Vernon.

The goal of the Midtown Community Plan, which includes Mount Vernon, is laudable. But there are serious deficiencies that need to be noted.

The plan is based on a central premise: that excessive, fast-moving through traffic is the primary impediment to the residential upgrading of Mount Vernon and adjacent Charles North, and that calming and diverting traffic will make these places prestige addresses.

But traffic, although an important element in determining an area's desirability, is still just one factor.

Other factors that contribute to Mount Vernon's nondescript residential status are:

Houses that are too big for single-family use.

A general lack of interior gardens.

Proximity to deteriorated areas and the prison complex.

The strong preference of affluent Baltimoreans for homogeneous, suburban-like residential locations.

The Midtown Plan claims that streets with more than 7,000 vehicles a day create hostile environments where residents cannot socially interact with their neighbors. Attitudes and mores, however, affect how people will act toward others in their midst just as much as traffic patterns.

In the more than 15 years I have lived in Mount Vernon, I have entered and exited the two apartment buildings where I lived thousands of times. Not once have I seen two or more neighbors speaking with each other. Traffic cannot be the culprit; there isn't any traffic in building hallways.

Taming traffic in Mount Vernon and adjacent areas has been discussed sporadically for many years. Mebane Turner, the president of the University of Baltimore, advocated traffic calming in 1978. Then-U.S. Attorney Tim Baker did likewise in 1991. Virtually nothing has actually been done, and virtually nothing is likely to be done, for one basic reason: A strong constituency for change simply doesn't exist. The social ecology of Baltimore in general, and Mount Vernon in particular, will reveal why.

Mount Vernon is an artificial area more than a true neighborhood. Two groups define the area: a resident population that is largely transient and anomic, and a nonresident population that patronizes restaurants, clubs and cultural institutions but has no interest in moving to the area.

The two groups have little interaction with each other, and neither group has any real stake in the traffic proposals of the Midtown Plan. Residents who don't know their neighbors from Adam are unlikely to work for civic improvements, and nonresidents don't care because they have no interest in becoming residents (and because they don't want to have their trips into and out of the area slowed down).

The Midtown Plan attempts to get around this conundrum by claiming that restaurants, clubs and cultural institutions are somehow in jeopardy unless the residential market is "fixed." That this argument is tortured and hollow is clear from the plan itself.

For example, Page 3 states that the area contains "major museums, concert halls, and 8,500 theatre seats" as well as "dozens of restaurants and clubs." These activities obviously have not been deterred by the area's nondescript and seedy residential status.

The bottom line is that members of elite groups elsewhere place a high value on living in downtown neighborhoods such as Washington's Georgetown and Boston's Beacon Hill, but Baltimoreans don't.

So long as members of the local elite view Mount Vernon as a stage set rather than a residential destination, there will be no impetus to change traffic at all.

Most fundamentally, the basic premise of the plan -- that affluent individuals will not move to Mount Vernon and adjacent areas until traffic is changed -- is wrong because it is backward.

There is no consensus -- and no push -- for changing traffic because affluent individuals have shown very little interest in moving to the area.

Today's writer

Christopher Mulder is a freelance writer who has been living in Mount Vernon for more than 15 years.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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