Broadway corridor crucial in rebirth of city's east side

April 23, 2002|By Michael Olesker

JOSE LUACES hoists himself up to his full 5-feet-zip, the better to see himself as he really is: a piece of East Baltimore's bridge to tomorrow. The same for Jose Morales. The two of them own the Arizona Sports Bar and Grille, Broadway and Lombard Street, where the food is wonderful but is secondary to the story.

Luaces arrived here roughly four decades ago from Spain's Basque country. "I'm here longer than God," he laughs. Morales is here more than a decade from his native Colombia. They were sitting in the dining area of their place one night last week, a few hours after life in East Baltimore was declared changed forever.

"There will not be another project like this in most of our lifetimes," Rep. Elijah Cummings had pronounced earlier in the day. Cummings stood on a vacant lot in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital, in the shadow of a few generations of neighborhood neglect and decay and indifference that is now to be replaced by a biotech park that will include 8,000 jobs and hundreds of new and rehabilitated housing units.

"This project is too important not to succeed," said Joseph Haskins Jr., the banker who will head the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. board overseeing the project.

"This effort is not going to be a sad chapter of urban renewal," said Mayor Martin O'Malley, standing with community leaders who have struggled for long months on the project. "We have the opportunity here to rebuild a neighborhood from the ground up."

What we're witnessing here is the oldest of lessons about cities: Contrary to folklore, they do not die. The city of Baltimore is not dying. Parts of cities die, and they lie there for a while, and later, long after everyone has given them up for dead, they are reborn, to everyone's great astonishment.

Do we need to talk about Harborplace again, or Fells Point, which was ready to be handed over to the highway construction boys, or the west side of downtown, which is moving toward rebirth?

It can happen along the Broadway corridor, too. This is where Luaces and Morales are so important. They are pieces of the bridge -- spanning bustling Fells Point and the ruins of those blocks around Hopkins, between now and tomorrow.

And, not to be minimized, it's a bridge for a city that once drew fearful distinctions between races and religions and ethnic cultures, and has learned to put aside some of its suspicions and celebrate the richness of the cosmopolitan mix.

The Arizona Sports Bar and Grille is cater-corner from the Apex movie theater. The Apex is famous for X-rated movies. It is also symbolic. You leave the Broadway Market vibes of Fells Point and work your way north up Broadway, and the good cheer gets spottier. It is called Upper Fells Point there, but the moniker becomes a psychological stretch that includes the tacky movie in place of, say, the amateur theater production.

By the time you reach Hopkins Hospital, another half-mile up Broadway, almost all signs of good cheer are gone. We have, arguably, the finest hospital in the entire world, and it hovers over a landscape of physical and social devastation.

And so, between now and later -- between decay and rebirth -- it's that stretch between Fells Point and Hopkins that becomes crucial. It's the bridge that opens up an entire corridor to a sense of civility and safety.

The Arizona Sports Bar is symbolic of the transition. Opened 18 months ago, it is still finding its audience. Sometimes, the place is pretty quiet. Other times, it's jumping with customers and music and, at the bar, people cheering ballgames on a TV screen.

"What happens by Hopkins, that's going to affect everything," Luaces was saying now. As he spoke, locals dropped by his table: Nicolas Ravos, whose Nico Construction company employs 70 people, and Tona Cravioto, a young banking and finance graduate of the University of Mexico.

"The whole Broadway corridor," Luaces said. "[The project] reinforces the Hispanic community that's building around here, but it encourages everyone into the neighborhood."

"It's gonna be great for everybody," Morales agreed. "People want to feel safe on Broadway. When you have that, this is gonna be some special neighborhood."

Twenty years ago, the metro area was said to have about 20,000 Latinos. Today, it has more than 50,000. Many cluster around the Fells Point area. Hispanic businesses abound. But the area is also home to the American Indian Center, and to a mix of black and white families.

And that mix is also a bridge -- from the old Baltimore, where people settled down with their own and suspected all outsiders, to a place where the mix is part of the city's salvation.

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