New downtown, old memories combine for pleasant pairing

October 12, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

I'VE SPENT some soggy fall afternoons around Howard and Lexington streets wondering what is going to happen there, to these memorable blocks where we all spent our money, caught shows or just hung out. I dont mind saying it is an emotional trip, revisiting these empty, often depressed - or changed - addresses.

Our old downtown shopping neighborhood is squarely in the process of a huge makeover, one that may take getting used to and fill up years, if not decades, with tough work.

Baltimore is no slouch in reinventing itself. You can quibble about the results - I think of all those Carroll County-like cottages now being built along George Street and Myrtle Avenue (West Baltimore), where the Murphy Homes public housing project once stood. Some people will think these little homes quite lovely; to me, they are the dull suburbs transplanted to the city.

I often just like to walk around to observe our city's continuing transformations, good, bad, often just boring.

Back to Howard and Lexington. I'm not sure Baltimore will ever recapture the wonderful department store-entertainment energy that these blocks exuded, but I could be wrong. So many places around here have emerged from dead last into the winner's circle. Who would have ever thought that streetcars would run again on Howard Street?

I do wish the planners had come up with a better name than the generic-sounding Westside for all the work now transforming Eutaw, Fayette, Lexington and Howard streets. This time of the year, I also miss the City Fairs that would have lured Baltimoreans to these addresses and revealed to them the physical transformation of the area. If nothing else, seeing the renewal and its accompanying work has a way of making the change less threatening and more palatable.

Baltimoreans should investigate these new neighborhoods. After all, didn't it take us years to get used to the new Fells Point and Federal Hill? And being inveterate procrastinators, didn't it take us just as long to go and enjoy the results?

And, as we visit, we could demonstrate our allegiance, loyalty and enthusiasm. After all, what would have happened if the diehard, tenacious preservationists had not campaigned long and effectively for this neighborhood? We might have wound up with a vacant lot. I'm always delighted when friends tell me they've moved to one of these city addresses - and can share in the rebirth.

A few weeks ago, I was standing in the middle of the construction zone we once knew as Stewart's department store, behind a set of gorgeously designed first-floor show windows. Despite the presence of stacks of gypsum board and rolls of metal electrical tubing, there was no escaping the memories. I looked around for some surviving artifact that spoke to all of my trips here.

All of a sudden, in a dark corner, was the old book balcony, its Victorian cast-iron balustrades in place. I thought of the October day in 1965 when Pope Paul VI came to Yankee Stadium and, as Catholic students, we were freed from school. So what did I do? Of course, I went downtown, with my mother. The now tattered book from Stewart's I drubbed her into buying me from that balcony is still on my shelf.

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