Global village AFTER 10 YEARS of planning, the state's...

NOTES AND COMMENTS

November 26, 2001

Global village

AFTER 10 YEARS of planning, the state's new juvenile justice center will open in April on Gay Street, four blocks from City Hall.

This colossus arising on a 4.5-acre lot underscores the sad fact that the prison system is about the only growth industry in East Baltimore. Indeed, many of the buildings near the future juvenile justice center are vacant. The butchers, fishmongers and green grocers of the once-thriving Bel Air Market are gone, and Old Town Mall, which won revitalization awards in the 1970s, is again in dire straits.

In July, The Sun urged the Baltimore Development Corp. to convert the unused buildings and land into a business park. "Once that happens, Old Town Mall would again have a viable customer base," an editorial predicted.

Kim L. Sanders-Fisher has been watching the decline of the neighborhood since buying a renovated 1840s house near Old Town Mall five years ago. In recent months, she has become engrossed in "this crazy idea." She wants the pedestrian mall reopened to traffic and turned into a global village of West Indian, Hispanic, Chinese, Korean, Pakistani and Indian shops.

"Most are very simple, mom-and-pop, family-run operations without huge overheads," she says. "Such businesses do not require the massive, gaudy neon signs associated with fast food and store chains; the unique facades of the Old Town Mall could be renovated or maintained in historic style."

Ms. Sanders-Fisher has detailed her idea to city planners. Its main strength is that such exotic shops could turn Old Town Mall into a destination, compensating for the steep population loss the area has suffered in recent years.

Sadly, Old Town Mall typifies what happens to neighborhood retail districts in a shrinking city that has grown poorer. Pedestrian traffic hasn't been enough to sustain it because many car owners prefer to shop elsewhere. The city is grappling with the same dilemma along Pratt Street, Harford Road and Liberty Heights, Park Heights and Pennsylvania avenues. Maybe more "crazy ideas" like Ms. Sanders-Fisher's are needed.- Antero Pietila

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