On Mount Royal Avenue before Artscape

July 17, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

Half of Baltimore seems to post for this weekend's Artscape on Mount Royal Avenue, that old boulevard of generous proportions made all the more tolerable by the temporary traffic ban. I prefer to remember this street before it was laced into the Jones Falls Expressway's web and made into something of a minifreeway. I also miss the double line of sycamore trees, but there's a bumpy section or two of the original brick sidewalks with crabgrass sprouting through the cracks. As you can guess, I am not a big fan of the automobile in the city.

But the highway builders couldn't spoil its charm; Mount Royal Avenue remains one of my frequent destinations.

I'll long carry a memory, circa 1961, when I was taking Saturday art classes at the Maryland Institute. Urban renewal was just beginning to claw and tear a hole in the surrounding neighborhood. Some genius got the idea to demolish the rowhouses at Mount Royal. Block after block of perfectly good residences (then about 65 years old) were hauntingly vacant, awaiting wrecking, facing the art school.

I thought it all looked like a scene in a then-current film, The Counterfeit Traitor, of William Holden in bombed-up World War II Germany. That day, at about the age of 12, I learned a hard lesson. Things of grace and beauty get torn down and often are replaced by graceless exercises in misery.

Mount Royal Avenue is a year-round street. In the summer we have Artscape, but in the cooler months, the Lyric and nearby Meyerhoff come into their own.

One of my favorite Baltimore experiences is to dash to the Lyric for a performance, maybe in the rain or snow, on an atmospheric evening.

There is something about the press of people outside the Lyric, the way they march up Mount Royal. When the opera is on, I spot the musicians, searching for unmetered parking spaces, then hauling their fiddles over the Maryland Avenue Bridge. There is a moment of high drama as theatergoers quicken their steps, but not as fast as I am pacing when I invariably approach the box office seeking the last unsold tickets.

Come intermission, I always step outside the Lyric and consider the old B&O station across the street. While it was never a roaring commercial success as a railroad depot, Mount Royal Station gets high marks as a landmark and clock tower. I applaud its owner, the Institute, for keeping its clock running so well and its four dials so well lighted. At least one part of the old mechanical city runs well.

From time to time the Institute's students place works of sculpture in the Mount Royal grass plots. They are fun to observe, but no sculpture can match the silent statement of the station's granite tower that dates from the glory days of American railroading. And until the Howard Street Tunnel fire a few years ago, who realized that so much of the rail freight traffic along the East Coast ducked under here as well?

In a city where change comes slowly, and every corner seems to hold a memory, I like watching a newish addition to the street, the frequent crossings of the light rail cars at Dolphin Street, which somehow remind me of the old trackless trolleys (electric buses) on Howard Street. Now if only the department stores would return and I didn't have to travel 10 miles to buy a pair of pillow cases.

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