Surprisingly, some South Baltimore neighborhoods have a gritty air

February 19, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

GRAY FEBRUARY days aren't ideal for looking at Baltimore real estate, but then again, my father and I were not buyers. He had heard about, as had I, a row of houses being constructed on Race Street in South Baltimore. We were both curious.

So, that afternoon, after a big family gathering at his boyhood home on Poultney Street, we took off in search of the $500,000 rowhouses being built along the CSX tracks. The price of rowhouses in what is called Federal Hill always amazes us. But that's nothing new now. We looked the group over and he observed the site at least was free of the natural gas tanks that once stood not so far away from the new kitchens in these pricey abodes.

I remarked that their location, not far from both Oriole Park and M&T Stadium would be a plus for some buyers; not me, but then I very wrongly predicted that sports would be a failure downtown. Nor would I have ever guessed, about 30 years ago, that so many tight spaces and little lots would be developed for new homes.

As the two of us drove north along South Charles Street, I realized some of my other predictions also proved wrong. After more than three decades of rebuilding and heavy renovations in South Baltimore-Federal Hill neighborhoods, I thought the commercial parts of the neighborhood, along South Charles and Light streets, would be more prosperous looking. I speak of the environs of the Cross Street Market, which on most weekend nights is full of people.

Earlier that afternoon I had accompanied my niece on a short walk and window shopping expedition through this neighborhood. I thought to myself that houses may well be selling for fancy prices, but somebody certainly needs to keep the business streets a lot cleaner. Let's face it, if the houses are selling for pots of money, shouldn't their surroundings look pretty good, too?

The trees and their planting wells looked sad. The aged sidewalk needed a good makeover. Much of the area had a gritty, hard-edge, bar-town look that I thought would have softened in 30 years of heavy investment.

My father and I agreed it doesn't have to be this way. We drove up Charles Street and couldn't help noticing what a difference new sidewalks, granite curbs and paving materials made in the south Mount Vernon neighborhood below the Washington Monument. I realize this all came at considerable inconvenience to the merchants and office workers here, but now that it's complete, the place looks as if somebody truly cares.

And for those of us who like nothing better than to spend a Sunday afternoon walking around the old city, a decent walking surface counts plenty. I'll get to the subject of the street conditions another time.

One of Baltimore's charms is that it largely is immune to false claims and pretentions. On the other hand, when I look at the places that, after years of debate and digging into pockets, finally have allowed themselves to be fixed up, I like the results.

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