City reborn since last `Monday Night' game

January 07, 2002|By Raymond Daniel Burke

WHEN Monday Night Football last visited Baltimore, there was none of the downtown energy, bustle and spending that will accompany tonight's Ravens-Vikings game at PSINet Stadium.

That November 1978 game, of course, was played in Memorial Stadium, when a stadium at Camden Yards was a vague image in the minds of a few dreamers and no one could contemplate twin downtown sports complexes with state-of-the-art amenities.

Downtown was mostly quiet and sparsely populated at night, characterized more by the wafting aromas from McCormick's Light Street plant than by revelry or commerce. At Calvert and Redwood streets, the majestic brick Mercantile Bank Building, survivor of the great 1904 fire, presided over a dark and vacant street.

The Baltimore Colts were coming off three consecutive AFC Eastern Division championships, and were favored in some quarters to represent the conference in the next Super Bowl. Those aspirations came to a crashing halt, however, when star quarterback Bert Jones was lost with a preseason injury.

The Monday night upset of the Washington Redskins was a rare bright spot in a 5-11 season that would see the beloved franchise decimated by mismanagement and dithering over the supposed panacea of stadium improvements. It would end on a snowy night in March 1984, when, unannounced, the team absconded to Indianapolis. There would be no Baltimore NFL team for the next 12 seasons.

Memorial Stadium's other tenant, the Orioles, had just witnessed the New York Yankees celebrate their second consecutive World Series title. The 1978 Orioles had won 90 games and, led by solid pitching, sound fundamentals and manager Earl Weaver, were in the midst of 18 straight winning seasons. About a million customers turned out to see such excellence.

November 1978 also marked the ballot referendum that approved a project called Harborplace.

The concept of Baltimore as a tourism destination was then preposterous. The Inner Harbor had long been a dilapidated and uninviting place where the presence of the water was virtually undetectable beyond the dark looming buildings. But when the city cleared the area and began building the harbor-side promenade, a community began to discover the hidden treasure in its midst.

When Harborplace opened in July 1980, it did nothing less than change the face and identity of the city. It became the engine that drove the revival of the city's heart. It has wrought a truly changed and different downtown.

Some things, though, remain the same. We still have a horrible problem with drugs and crime, and much of the city lives in poverty and despair. Neighborhoods remain haunted by vacant, unsuitable and unsafe housing, and the public schools are still plagued by poor performance, lack of discipline and too many uninvolved families. High-paying manufacturing jobs continue to dwindle.

But some of the changes have reached beyond the glitter of the harbor lights. Old neighborhoods from Locust Point to Canton are being revitalized by new homeowners and rising property values. Old commercial buildings on the west side and in the financial district are becoming new residences.

And down at Calvert and Redwood, the stately Mercantile Bank has become a stylish dance club with a sound system that draws customers from all over the region. Inconceivable the last time Monday Night Football came to town.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a downtown Baltimore law firm.

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