As 'burbs go urban, city retail must keep identity

October 31, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

By all reliable accounts, including leaks from highly placed confidential sources inside the White House, I am among the last people in America to visit Wegmans, the new food store at the Hunt Valley Towne Centre. The TV news trumpeted Wegmans like the second coming of Harborplace. A lady in the store's meat department, Joyce McGee, said the crowds were so big the first week that they had "shopping cart gridlock. And you couldn't find a spot on the parking lot."

Don't get me wrong. I think Wegmans is very nice, and so is the imitation Main Street-style cluster of nearby stores and restaurants, all of which are finally breathing life into a shopping center that's been counted out more times than Mike Tyson.

But, to see us get so excited about a food store! What are we, Mayberry? In fact, maybe it's the faux-Mayberry look that touches us at Hunt Valley, the sense that Wegmans, and the accompanying Avenue-type strip of stores, is a throwback to a small-town look, a gathering-place feel that we lost when the enormous air-conditioned shopping malls began driving little mom-and-pop places out of business all over America.

At Wegmans, you wander through a maze of old-timey stalls where they're preparing fresh meats and breads, and so many different home-style meals, that it feels like something dimly remembered from as long ago as ... oh, yeah, the day before yesterday.

When you visited the Lexington Market.

Or the Cross Street Market.

Or the Broadway Market.

Do I mock Wegmans for this? Not at all. I think the place is lovely, and merely wish to make a point: Wegmans understands us. They understand the human desire for a look of intimacy, a sense that we're not numbly slogging through life's bland and endless aisles as a number instead of a name, that we want something a little more personal, that feels a little less mass-produced.

That's the same concept behind the nearby Avenue-style rows of shops at the Hunt Valley Towne Centre. It worked out there at White Marsh, didn't it? So, why not try it at Hunt Valley? There's a town square-like feel to Hunt Valley now, rows of shops and restaurants with a couple of places where folks can mingle the way they did long, long ago, so far back in our collective memory banks that it was ... oh, yeah, the day before yesterday.

In Fells Point.

Or Canton.

Or Federal Hill.

Do I mock the Avenue-style clustering of shops at Hunt Valley? Not at all. I think it's lovely, and wish to make a point: We're tired of the things we found exciting in the first rush to suburbia, bored by the sameness of things, hungry for something that feels a little more down-home.

Something like Fells Point, for instance, with its cobblestone streets and public squares. Or Canton, with its treasured old Pratt Library anchoring one end of the neighborhood square, and the old firehouse at the other. Or Federal Hill, with the Sunday crowds flocking to the old Cross Street Market and the nearby bars and restaurants on their way to Ravens' home games.

Which is not to say that Hunt Valley doesn't have its own surrounding ambience that you haven't seen since the day before yesterday. It does.

It has, for example, Wal-Mart.

All of which gets me to a larger, and more bothersome, point.

A few weeks ago, The Sun's Jill Rosen reported a new study saying that downtown Baltimore now has the population and the ready cash "to make it one of the country's top 10 retail markets." "Prime time for big chains," The Sun's headline said.

Wonderful.

As Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, told Rosen, "I was surprised. I go to New York, Philadelphia, Boston and D.C., and I'm always jealous of the retail they have. ... We finally have a chance."

Fowler makes it sound like the second coming of Hecht's and Hutzler's and Hochschild Kohn - or, who knows what other retail stores of today.

My question: Is this really what downtown wants?

Don't get me wrong - these have all been fine stores, great places to shop, valuable parts of the community. I do not knock them, is that clear? In their day, the big department stores made old Howard Street feel like the center of the universe, a place where you felt you had to dress up, as though visiting an intimidating maiden aunt.

But the big retailers have a bad tendency. They make everything in America feel like everything else in America. The people who are discovering downtown Baltimore - both the new homeowners and the tourists - love it for another reason: It doesn't feel like every other place in America. It just feels like Baltimore, which is uniquely itself and doesn't have to reinvent itself to be authentic. It's already the real deal.

You lose that, you lose the thing the suburbs are now trying to manufacture.

michael.olesker@baltsun.com

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