City's reinvention of itself was long time in the making

July 02, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

I WAS SITTING on a Camden Yards light rail platform looking around at a downtown Baltimore in this summer of 2005, a full quarter-century after the opening of Harborplace. I felt sorry for the 40,000 at the rained-out ballpark; the drizzly weather gave the city a moody, atmospheric look like something out of a black-and-white movie.

I looked up at the rounded upper windows of the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Building and thought about how it's now under construction for apartments. Earlier that day I watched a torrent of pre-Yankees-Orioles game fans flow through the new Sports Legends museum in the old Camden Station. I ducked in for a few minutes and was surprised to see Johnny Unitas' first Communion certificate and his childhood bed. Even the station's basement is now fully outfitted with first-rate sports history. No wonder the station seemed to have more people it in than at any time I can recall, even when the Baltimore and Ohio trains called here.

I looked across at the vacant lot where a Convention Center hotel has been proposed. The current debate over whether the city should foot the bill reminds me of all the controversy in Baltimore about spending money on downtown projects. My favorite was the time 45 years ago when Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman wanted to save a buck by building the Civic Center but not air-conditioning it.

On the other hand, I admit voting against both Harborplace and the National Aquarium just because of the do-gooding tone of the people promoting them.

In 1980, when Harborplace opened, I was captivated by its knockoff of an old city market and the way it created a festival marketplace, which lasted a while before the chain restaurants took hold of the place.

Who would have thought that Baltimore could reinvent itself? Consider a tourist zone crossed by Lombard and Pratt streets, which remain awful arteries, broiling in the summer, clogged with 18-wheelers and stinking with exhaust.

I also marvel at how far we've spread the city. It would be a good walk from the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum to Russell Street and an Orioles game. And it doesn't stop there. There's all sorts of new building west of Martin Luther King Boulevard in Poppleton and a big batch of new rowhouses going up at Washington Boulevard and Scott Street.

It's all been a while in the making. I think back to the weeks after July 4, 1976, when many of the Tall Ships left New York Harbor, sailed here and the crowds arrived at the Inner Harbor.

But then, what I recall as a personal, pivotal event happened on a dreary, rainy Saturday in the 1960s. I walked along a moribund Light Street in the direction of Federal Hill.

I investigated Montgomery Street and saw the first evidence of renovated homes. I'd been to Philadelphia some years before and observed what was happening, and working, in a place they called Society Hill. I could see it was starting in Federal Hill and knew there would be no stopping Baltimore now.

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