Curtain raising on W. Fayette merits an encore elsewhere

November 06, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

I WAS WALKING across Fayette Street to catch a bus home. The rain had stopped, and old downtown Baltimore, as opposed to our totally recast harbor, presented itself at 10:30 p.m., not an hour when the well-trod corner at Howard and Fayette is supposed to look its best.

Only a few minutes earlier, I was into a memory reverie, thinking about the old Town Theatre, where I saw Around the World in 80 Days and some other 1950s Technicolor banquets. I thought about how my grandfather went on about the vaudeville and burlesque clowns he'd enjoyed here. I thought about the parking garage on the site of the old Ford's Theatre, where my grandmother offered her own descriptions of seeing Ethel Barrymore and Mae West perform, but not on the same bill.

This rosy spell of the past jolted away fast when my eyes detected the reality of fall 2004.

While walking along Fayette, instead of seeing boarded-up buildings and construction mess, there was a fresh clean apartment lobby, laid out with attractive furnishings and a staff member seated at a reception desk. Here, where a Damon Runyonese liquor store and men's hat shop once stood, was a chunk of the new Baltimore, alas, that doesn't get talked about too much.

I'm not so sure the crowds that were leaving the Hippodrome and Thoroughly Modern Millie caught the significance that night. Most bolt to the new parking garages, which, by the way, have been curiously and ingeniously constructed within the site of this new apartment house, named Centerpoint. I'm not sure how many people live there now, but it'll fill up, as others around it have.

Old-time Baltimoreans would have trouble conceiving of Howard and Fayette as the home of a place to live, a place to set up housekeeping. And yet, I looked up and in the distance was the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Building at Lexington and Liberty, the next candidate for apartment conversion.

When I crossed Howard Street, and a pair of light rail trains passed, I thought for a minute of taking one home, but weighted the nocturnal/crime considerations of hoofing up Charles Street from Penn Station about 11 p.m. I declined that night.

I moved on toward Charles Street and looked over my shoulder at the old Hecht's building, now full of apartments, and watched a few lights be turned off. But many lights were scattered on, telling me its residents were catching up on the 11 o'clock news.

There were not many other people on the street; Baltimore loves to shut down before sunset. I find it amusing that local magazines have to run special articles about the rare local restaurants that serve food after 9 p.m.

When the Charles Street bus arrived and carried me up toward Charles Village, I thought again about what is being accomplished in our old downtown. Then I got to thinking, why not here, around Penn Station and North Avenue, on Charles, Calvert and St. Paul streets? Maybe there'll be a night when I can walk home sensing the safety that decent housing and neighborhoods impart -- the same kind of new life promised for little old West Fayette Street.

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