Unpave parking lot and put up a paradise

September 02, 2004|By Nicholas Leonhardt

ALL THAT glitters is not gold. Sometimes it's merely cracked asphalt.

The barren, broken parking lot behind Penn Station in Baltimore may not appear to be a treasure, but it contains some of the most valuable yet undeveloped real estate along the Amtrak corridor. The Charles North Community Association proposes landscaping this property and building an amphitheater, bringing green space, a dog park and live entertainment to a block most people ignore. This pastoral gathering place not only would be a gem for the immediate neighborhood but would also attract young people seeking music and theater.

Considered an overflow space should Amtrak's newer underground garage reach capacity, the old parking lot rarely contains more than a dozen cars. Its location, between North Charles and St. Paul streets, makes it a daily eyesore to commuters.

FOR THE RECORD - Edgar Allan Poe is buried in a cemetery next to Westminster Hall. An article yesterday gave an incorrect site. The Sun regrets the error.

More important, the neglected site serves as the southern boundary for Baltimore's fledgling Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Although this grandiose label describes more a game plan than reality, an arts district of 100 acres bound by Greenmount Cemetery on the east, Interstate 83 on the west and 20th Street to the north makes great sense.

Turning this seedy lot into an urban performance site would involve breaking asphalt but not new ground. The district already boasts the Maryland Film Festival at the Charles Theater, local talent at the Everyman Theater and the renovation of the Parkway Theater, a classic moviehouse from the golden age of the silver screen.

A few blocks away, Greenmount Cemetery gains fame each year when a secret admirer decorates Edgar Allan Poe's grave. Now it's time to celebrate Baltimore's contemporary creative heroes - the hundreds of artists and entertainers who already live in the Station North District and the hundreds more who want to perform in their city.

These modern visionaries can serve as role models for area youths who seek a sense of purpose - and of community. The clichM-i holds that teenagers hang out in shopping malls, but no one pauses midway through a lukewarm slice of food-court pizza to question why. The lure of the mall certainly does not lie within its shops.

Observation says about 50 percent of mall rats are male, but it's common knowledge that teenage boys would rather reread Moby-Dick than stand in line at fitting rooms. Nor are food courts the main attraction. With an image-obsessed society avoiding carbs, fats and calories, many teens believe lettuce leaves and Diet Decaf Coke anchor the food pyramid.

Then why do youths congregate in these concrete and glass temples to consumerism? The shopping mall is merely the latest chapter in The History of Hanging Out. Teenagers in Colonial times kept the village greens a rockin', while the antebellum South found cotillions totally cool. Farm youths bonded through barn-raisings; malt shops attracted awesome dudes in the 1950s.

The mall may be the epicenter of teen life in the new millennium, but a reincarnated village green with fresh air, green grass and local culture would enhance the new century.

An amphitheater as envisioned by the Charles North Community Association undoubtedly would attract basement bands, rattling the city's foundations with amps the size of refrigerators. The popularity of multi-band shows in church halls, rec centers and theaters demonstrates the area's passion for music.

Reclaiming the lot would enrich Baltimore's youths without depleting the city's riches. The cost to replace the crumbling asphalt with grass around a simple stage would be minimal. Since the underused lot earns a pittance from parking, Amtrak may find it more profitable to lease this land to the city, especially because the railroad currently declines to sell the valuable site.

Landscaping this eyesore would beautify the first area seen by tourists arriving by train in Baltimore. A new population of artists could reduce the troubling 35 percent vacancy rate on some desolate residential blocks nearby. The resulting influx of visitors would push out crime, especially if the city were to reactivate the police kiosk at Charles and Lanvale streets and increase patrols.

Although Charles Smith, vice president of the Charles North Community Association, expects to have a complete proposal by autumn, the city or its nonprofit champions could speed up the project by untangling the legal, financial and zoning knots. Promoting the arts district through an outdoor performance site would be a win-win situation for the city's coffers, its residents and its image.

In the ancient fable, King Midas' touch turns everything to gold. In Baltimore, green space could prove to be a far greater treasure.

Nicholas Leonhardt will be a senior at Loyola Blakefield High School and lives in Lutherville.

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