A neighborly market has high value

This Just In...

April 10, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

I CAME ACROSS this statement yesterday morning: "Trends are not destiny." That was a good way to start the day on which the mayor of Baltimore would announce, at long last, a new plan for Belvedere Square.

"Trends are not destiny" is from a little soft-cover book called The Home Town Advantage, published by some troublemakers up in Minnesota who work at a small-business-boosting, sprawl-fighting, outside-the big-box-thinking group called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"When people lament the disappearance of the local bookseller or neighborhood pharmacist, too often they speak with a deep sense of resignation," author Stacy Mitchell writes. "We mourn the loss, but deep in our hearts we accept these enterprises' extinction as an inevitable part of market evolution. We take as self-evident that giant chains - with their MBAs and sophisticated computer systems and vast buying power and global reach - can and do offer us better service and lower prices. We take as self-evident that chains create jobs in sleepy, stagnant rural economies and generate additional tax revenues for public service."

Mitchell challenges this resignation in the American mind - resignation that big-box retailers, megachains and fast-food franchises are the nation's destiny.

She is correct about something - our inclination to see as inevitable all that is fed to us in the mass media by the huge corporations that provide what we eat, wear, drive, watch, hear and take for a headache. Mass-marketed consumer products and the lifestyle they support pretty much define American culture.

Being human, we gravitate toward that which is familiar. And for millions of Americans, what is familiar is what's seen in the virtual environment of television and the Internet. The old hardware store on Main Street might not look familiar anymore. Diners look like settings of movies and sitcoms, not real places. Why shave and go into a funky, little bookstore when you can order what you want from Amazon.com?

Given the way much of this nation has been constructed in the past 40 years - suburban development, strip shopping centers, little sense of "downtown" or a central place for neighborly communion - the familiar is what's seen on TV.

Some might still define American culture as a Norman Rockwell painting. I think it's more like the Andreas Gursky photograph - row after row of candy and soda, a rainbow of retail, on sale in some huge warehouse store - that illustrates an essay titled "The Numbing of the American Mind" in the current Harper's.

Sure, Thomas de Zengotita says, Americans have been exposed to advertising and consumerism-as-life since the 1950s. "But [today's] is a new order of quality and saturation," he writes. "Saying that it's just more of what we had before is like saying a hurricane is just more breeze."

Still, I should like to sound an optimistic note: "Trend is not destiny."

Until people who cared about Baltimore's neighborhood life barked and balked, Belvedere Square, the bedeviled retail center on the north side of town, was destined to turn into some been-there-done-that shopping center anchored by a big-box retailer and a chain drugstore. Talk about the numbing of the American mind. Who needed it?

This argument goes to the heart of how we live, how we behave and whether we thrive. Harborplace has proven to be a wonderful thing, but the city's future - indeed, its identity - lies in the health of its neighborhoods. When it opened in the mid-1980s, Belvedere was a yuppified version of one of the city's old public markets, with produce stalls, butchers, a fishmonger and lots of people. I don't know if that was the original developer's intent, or whether he was even aware of how Belvedere emulated this earlier, proven design. But that's how it always struck me, and that's why it seemed to be, in the right hands, a winner.

Unfortunately, it was not in good hands, and Belvedere's management squandered an opportunity. So much of it sat so vacant for so long it seemed to be a prime target for a big-box retailer - a shift of that suburban model into a city neighborhood. The temptation was great to go this way.

But Belvedere apparently is not going that way.

Bill Struever, hailed yesterday by his new partner in the project, Richard Alter of Manekin Corp., as "the finest urban developer in the nation," promised to make Belvedere Square what it once was: a market surrounded by mixed-use space for retailers and offices. He called it "a caldron" of social life.

"Our society is so big and so all over the place," Struever said, "that we need these places."

Great, good places where, as Mayor Martin O'Malley added, "you can see your neighbors, get a cup of coffee" and stay connected, in the breeze of routine, to your community. It's not nostalgia that drives us to these places. It's the need to step out of our high-speed, big-is-best culture and become engaged in that mysterious something you can't find on the shelf at Wal-Mart.

If Belvedere Square can be what it was in its heyday - and if markets like it (Lexington, Cross Street, Lafayette, Northeast, Broadway) and other retail neighborhoods (Waverly, Highlandtown, Monument Street, West Pratt) can attract more developers and smart government funding - you'll be able to feel a healthy bounce and buzz as Baltimore moves to the future, without losing its identity, or making trend destiny.

No error in stance

Several readers asked me to apologize for Monday's column on the shelved plan for a ceremonial mace at Towson University. The only thing I regret is getting the proposed colors wrong. That mace should be adorned with gold and onyx, not opal. The son of the former Rose Popolo regrets the error.

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