Signs of hope for bored Blue Jays

City Diary

April 23, 2003|By KERRY MICHAEL HILLIS

TEN YEARS ago, famed journalist and native Baltimorean Russell Baker was incensed by a college magazine's rating of the Johns Hopkins University as one of the most boring universities in the country.

Revealing his displeasure in an article for The New York Times, Mr. Baker was not upset that Hopkins was on the list but instead that the magazine dared claim any other school could possibly be more "funless" than his beloved alma mater.

Always eager to demonstrate his comic wit, Mr. Baker saw the lack of just about anything to do around the Homewood campus as a matter of personal pride (Mr. Baker insisted that Blue Jays lack any actual school pride). Ten years later, little has changed. Hopkins remains the dullest university in the country.

A stroll around Charles Village, the retail, residential and restaurant strip adjacent to Homewood, can be completed in all of 15 minutes and is about as exciting as a trip to the liquor store (which, coincidentally, is one of the area's main attractions).

Absent are the typical hallmarks of university life, such as cheap clothing stores, movie theaters, night clubs, street merchants, ice cream emporiums, poster shops and ethnic eateries.

Instead, the most significant establishments, other than the liquor stores, are the Bank of America and Eddie's Market. Now, though one cannot refute the utility of having a bank and a grocery store in a neighborhood, these are not the most exciting places to hang out on a Friday or Saturday night.

Upon this bleak landscape, however, has emerged a radiant, though fuzzy, beam of hope.

The Charles Village Project, a plan announced in January by the university's administration, promises more spark in the Hopkins experience. Though begun simply as an effort to move the school's bookstore from the depths of Gilman Hall (the building with the clock tower) and put it in university-owned property on 33rd Street, the project has morphed into a far more ambitious proposal.

To give perspective to the university's apparent intentions, the winning bid went to a team of developers dubbing themselves the Collegetown Development Alliance. From the names involved in this plan, the Charles Village Project and the Collegetown Development Alliance, the university appears to be trying to appeal to both residents of Charles Village, consisting largely of "adults," and the university's thousands of students - two very different constituencies indeed.

The development team, however, appears to not be constraining itself within the university's game of neighborhood politics. According to a January article in The Sun, the leader of the alliance, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., has been quietly buying property in the area for months with hopes to "jazz up the 3200 block of St. Paul Street with new businesses and upgraded homes."

Beyond ensuring that Hopkins students can have a social life, this effort also has the potential to add jobs to a city that is in desperate need of any employment opportunities it can get. This, in fact, is perhaps the most positive aspect of the development and makes it seem a wonder that no one thought of this earlier.

Hopkins students are one of Baltimore's most obvious, though nearly untapped, resources. Although the tuition is nearly $30,000 a year, a cursory examination of the cars these kids drive would seem to indicate that some of them have money to burn. With nowhere near the campus to spend these dollars, students instead participate in a weekly weekend exodus to Towson and ring up their credit cards in one of the area's suburban McMalls.

Unfortunately for fun-starved undergraduates and graduates alike, the Charles Village Project will not be completed until 2005. In the interim, however, they can partake in the staple university activities, illuminated in a recent Hopkins publication, of riding around aimlessly all night in a school security van or balling themselves into fetal positions in the campus library announcing the destruction of their immortal souls.

Today's writer

Kerry Michael Hillis, a former constituent representative for Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, is a graduate student in public policy at Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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