Charm offensive

A critic of the American cityscape finds much to lament - but also a few gems - on a downtown Baltimore stroll


James Howard Kunstler, the acid-tongued arch-enemy of gas-guzzling vehicles, discount superstores, bland modern architecture and - above all else - the "wasteland" that is suburbia, has trained his critical eye on Baltimore.

And, as the salty author and orator unleashed his blunt commentary, scarcely a downtown landmark remained untouched. Not the Inner Harbor tourist traps. Not the nascent west-side apartment homes. Not the lonely public plazas.

"Is this place successful?" he asks, taking in the flat, gray expanse of Hopkins Plaza, where, on an overcast afternoon, some pigeons - also gray - are the only beings stirring. As his tour guide answers, "No," he retorts: "I can see why not.

"There's nothing on the edge to activate it, just blank walls. What amazes me though, is the dumbness of the original planning."


It was downtown boosters - of all people - who invited Kunstler, a card-carrying opponent of the "If You Don't Have Anything Nice To Say" rule, to town.

Known best for his dressing-down of sprawl, The Geography of Nowhere, Kunstler also blasts civilization's screw-ups in a blog whose name can't be mentioned in a family newspaper and seeks out architectural "eyesores of the month."

The Downtown Partnership asked him to speak before hundreds of city professionals at a networking breakfast last week. It also encouraged him to spend a day roaming downtown's streets with his eyesore cam.

Semi-steeled for the tour and almost prepared for whatever the critic might verbally incinerate, partnership President Kirby Fowler whispers: "Aren't we brave?"

Considering Kunstler had barely left the partnership's Charles Street offices before encountering a "retail abomination," the answer would most definitely have to be: yes.

The 57-year-old author, whose hoop earring calls into question the authority suggested by his gold-buttoned blazer, juices his lengthy tongue-lashings with linguistic flourishes, dry humor and over-the-top descriptions. He throws around terms like "monstrosity" and "brutal" and "fiasco" the way most people use "and" or "the."

Consider his musings on Freedom Tower, New York City's proposed World Trade Center replacement:

"What you get is a gigantic blank-walled crypto-military fortification ... while the priapic tower above holds office workers hostage in the world's No. 1 target. ... What kind of sadist corporate CEO would ask his or her employees to work in the 49th floor of this monstrosity?

"The project should sink from the sheer weight of stupidity that has been heaped into it. It lacks the dignity of even a common bowling trophy. It's a disgrace to the city of New York and to the word freedom."

And he was just getting warmed up.

Thanks perhaps to Downtown Partnership's prayers, nothing in Baltimore riled Kunstler to that degree. But that's not to say he wasn't riled.

Walking east from Hopkins Plaza, the critic's distaste for that missed opportunity melts some at the sight of Redwood Street and the grand facade of Redwood Trust.

"It rewards you quite a bit with the ornament," he observes before all but gushing over the courtyard bistro seating spilling outside from Au Bon Pain on South Street.

The red-brick Baltimore International College earns a rare "beautiful" just before Kunstler turns north and notices a naughty sign: "Adult magazines?" he gasps theatrically. "Does that mean you can get Atlantic Monthly in there?"

Admiring the stately architecture hiding behind The Block's glaring neon and overt come-ons, he says, "The problem there is mostly the programming." He calls the seedy area "an unfortunate consequence of our disinterest in the city."

"There's nothing wrong with making it a little more difficult for the sex industry to operate," he scolds. "You don't have to invite it into the front yard."

Interestingly enough, the newly refurbished War Memorial Plaza elicits more of a rise from Kunstler than strip club central.

"This is rather austere," he says, taking in the freshly planted flowers and gravel carpet. "You know what would improve this immensely? Trees."

If this was France, he continues, there'd be two rows right down the center, making it a pleasant, intimate, well-defined space. America's junky newness, compared with Europe's elegant capitals, is one of Kunstler's better-worn gripes.

"Here in America, we are in the Special Olympics of landscape design," he grouses, cursing the memorial's "terribly ambiguous," "ill-defined" space. "People don't know if they're invited to be on it or not."

Further reddening the faces of his Downtown Partnership guides, when Kunstler moves to take a seat at one of the plaza's new cafe tables, trying to pull out a chair, he finds it padlocked to the table and impossible to sit in.

They wouldn't pull that in Paris, he says.

Fowler points out that this is Baltimore, where in recent weeks someone stole more than 100 city light poles.

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