Baltimore looks up and finds ... that things are looking up

September 17, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IT WAS AN ordinary night on Southeast Baltimore's Fleet Street between Chester and Collington.

At Fatima's restaurant and bar, where the Middle Eastern food was merely luscious, the house belly dancer whose fulltime job is emergency room nurse paused in her performance to teach some young execs from Baltimore SmartCEO magazine how to shake their pelvises, while a city judge out for dinner with his lady slipped dollar bills into places where the dancer's flimsy costume met major portions of her anatomy. At the bar, some neighborhood folks turned from ogling the dancer's navigations to a couple of TV sets and sent up hosannahs for the Orioles, who were clobbering the Yankees.

Meanwhile, the front doors were flung wide open to take in the feel of a Southeast Baltimore night. A block from Fatima's, down little Cambridge Street, the actors George Clooney and Christopher Plummer were shooting scenes for their new movie, using the interiors of Sip `n' Bite. Between scenes, Clooney and Plummer hung out on the street and kibbitzed. A whole bunch of neighbors hung around, but nobody exactly swooned. After all, John Travolta just finished filming here.

Then there was Boston Street a block away. The long waterfront avenue was filled with young people out for a night's partying at bars and restaurants. Across the street, there were scores of new townhouses and condominiums for sale. For half a million bucks, more or less.

Just blocks away, it was more of the same. Canton and Fells Point were jammed with people. So were Little Italy and Harborplace and Federal Hill. And on 36th Street in Hampden the other morning, there was Mayor Martin O'Malley, having breakfast at CafM-i Hon, declaring that none of this should be surprising any more.

"We are a city that suffers from pathological modesty," he said. "We're the last ones to see we're doing better than we thought we were."

Some of this is reflected in numbers. Over the weekend, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc. reported that the city posted a record 33 percent increase in home prices last month. Just three years ago, that figure was a puny 2.4 percent. This year's figure more than doubles the region's 15.4 percent. Also, the city had the region's biggest increase in home sales activity - up 35 percent over this time a year ago.

"It's so much more than just rates and the economy," Tracy Gosson, executive director of Live Baltimore Home Center, told The Sun's Jamie Smith Hopkins. "It's about the confidence level in Baltimore City."

In the waterfront neighborhoods, this is not exactly news. They've been jumping for the last several years with rehabbing, and with the arrival of young people grown bored with suburban living. But the action has gone inland, to Bolton Hill and Reservoir Hill, and Wyman Park and Highlandtown and Hampden, where O'Malley looked out at extensive road repairs on busy 36th Street the other morning.

"What we're seeing is a younger, creative class moving into the city," he said. "They're seeing the difference between suburban sterility and the diversity of cultures that makes the city exciting. The suburbs used to be the definition of achievement. I don't think young people see it that way any more."

Lunching at Sabatino's Restaurant in Little Italy the same day, Tony Ambridge said some of the same things. Ambridge, the former city councilman and city real estate officer, is now president of Lambda Development, a private real estate firm.

"I've never seen the kind of interest we're seeing in Baltimore right now," he said. "Not from in-town people, and not from out-of-town people. We're at that crossroads where prices are going up, but they're still far, far below anything you can find in the Washington area. People look at the city and say, `Hey, this is great, this is funky.' And the prices are still affordable."

The average home sold in Baltimore's suburbs last month cost about $301,300. In the Washington area, it was $440,000. In the city, it was $155,600.

But the healthy signs go beyond homes. According to Baltimore Development Corp. figures, more than $2 billion in city construction projects have been completed in the last two years. Another $1.3 billion is under construction. Over the next 18 months, nearly $1.2 billion more are planned. And an additional $1.4 billion is projected for the 18 months after that.

But those are just numbers. For a city forever coping with its famously ingrained inferiority complex, it translates to a new state of mind. We're hot, we're desirable. Our neighborhoods are ripe with newcomers looking for some place to settle in; our downtown streets are electric with human energy. In human terms, it's that belly dancer and the judge exchanging good-natured winks, while a gaggle of young folks happily line up to learn a few of this idiosyncratic city's funky dance steps.

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