`Mayor' of Belvedere Square deals in bagels - and hope

April 13, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MARTIN O'Malley is mayor of Baltimore, but this is merely by popular vote. Some places have mayors because a person stays in a place until the title grows over him like a birthright. At the Belvedere Square marketplace, the mayor is Greg Novik, by dint of his faith in a community, his refusal to leave when so many others fled and, never to be minimized, his magnificent bagels.

Last week, when they re-opened the market at Belvedere Avenue and York Road, Novik stood there and welcomed back what must have seemed like displaced constituents. Through the death-rattle years of abandonment in this little strip mall, Novik and his wife, Kathy, kept the doors open at Greg's Bagels, where they seemed like a small welcoming light amid the surrounding storefront emptiness.

"Maybe I can start to make an actual living again," Novik said with a laugh. For the grand occasion, he was dressed formally in a plaid lumberjack shirt, his graying beard almost kempt, as he shook one congratulatory hand after another.

He said this just after the other mayor, named O'Malley, had offered a lovely welcoming speech to a couple hundred people at the market's reopening. In his three years in office, O'Malley has championed Belvedere Square's rebirth. He remembers when the place bustled. In fact, he courted a young lady named Katie Curran there.

"No area this side of Howard Street has been more widely eulogized," O'Malley said.

Left unsaid: Howard Street is now returning in ways previously unimagined - and Belvedere Square, eulogies notwithstanding, will now begin to emerge from the grave.

We are different here in Baltimore. Suburbia opens a business and it's no big deal. When the city opens a shopping area, trumpets are blasted. In suburbia, the good times are sometimes taken for granted. In the city, each triumph is seen as a cry in the night: We're still here.

Thirty-five years ago this month, we scared ourselves to death in the aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. The riots that followed set off years of anger and recrimination, of families heading out of the city, of plunging population figures, and of many subsequent attempts at reconciliation by people of good will and stubborn belief in the urban mix.

What was striking, last week, was not just this rebirth of a gathering place for many North Baltimore neighborhoods, but the familiar faces of a generation of people who have been there through the long struggle to hold the city together and played key roles at Belvedere Square: Bill Struever and Jay Brodie, Tony Hawkins and Richard Alter, Joan Carter Conway and Tom Kiefaber.

"We desperately need to come together," said Struever, president of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, "and recognize that we're one people. Places like this are the lifeblood of a community."

"Success has many parents, and failure has none," said Alter, president of the Manekin Corporation, as he looked over the big crowd. "I wasn't a true believer at first. My faith in this was tentative, my vision mundane. I look at a project and see what it can make. Bill Struever looks at it and sees what it can change."

What has changed in Baltimore is a more confident belief in its own future. For the better part of a decade now, this could be seen in all of the waterfront neighborhoods, with their frenzied rehabbing and the downtown resurgence. But Belvedere Square seemed part of an enduring problem of evacuation. The old fresh-food market fell apart from poor management and lay there for years.

At Greg's Bagels, the Noviks had their following - but they also clung to economic life by a thread. O'Malley and Struever would drop in, and pat Greg Novik on the back, and call him the mayor of Belvedere Square. Novik would laugh, "Our regulars plead with us not to leave. All right, I'm not gonna leave. But I'm getting tired of running a not-for-profit business."

Maybe he won't have to any more. At the new fresh-food market a few doors down from his bagel place, there's a mix of new places for baked goods and produce and fresh soups and flowers and smoked delicacies and seafood and Vietnamese cuisine and beer and wine.

"Local businesses you're not gonna find in any boring old suburban mall," Struever said.

"People from the suburbs will want to come here," Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corporation. He jokingly asked the crowd, "Will you allow people from the suburbs to see what revitalization can be?"

We're different in the city. The dedication of a shopping area isn't just a business deal, it's a pact with our belief system. At last week's dedication, kids from the Northwood Elementary School choir opened the ceremonies. They sang "No Man Is An Island."

They sang it with gusto and joy, and they lifted the heart because the words are a reminder: We're still here. Dawn comes again to the city.

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