Let's hope city's upswing doesn't have a downside

November 26, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

I was polishing off an amazing dinner the other night at a restaurant alongside Meyerhoff Symphony Hall when I started reviewing all the different configurations at this address. Let's see, it's been a Society Hill, Grill 58 and something called La Tesso Tana. It's now Abacrombie Fine Food.

That night, as I dissolved into a food reverie, I got to thinking that Baltimore of late 2005 is indeed in a very good place. The harbor neighborhoods are on a furious roll, but not at the expense of other spots. I'm much impressed by the not-as-glamorous addresses, such as Northeast's Belair-Edison, where I observe the pride in homeownership that tells me that Baltimore is not exclusively about expensive water-view apartments.

But we've been fooled before. Great restaurants in promising locations have folded. I got to worrying: Will this round of urban prosperity endure? Baltimore has been on the rise before, but then somebody's pushed the down button.

How soon we forget. Nowadays, home owners get letters from tax assessors who have hiked assessment based on rising property values. Not so many years ago, in the 1990s, I can well recall hearing my neighbors discuss the opposite -- the sobering experience of an involuntary, unsought assessment slash because there was so little financial confidence in Baltimore's real estate.

Come to think about it, that very piece of city real estate where I had such an enjoyable dinner, an old house at Biddle and Cathedral streets, was once in deep trouble. Maybe 30 years ago, city neighborhoods booster Hope Quackenbush summoned me to this very corner rowhouse to discuss its plight.

Back then a couple was trying to purchase what was then a sorry-looking corner rowhouse. The neighborhood looked like something out of film noir. Certainly, in its day, this would have been a swell address, but in 1975, banks thought otherwise. Sketchy West Biddle Street rowhouses were not generating much excitement.

If my memory is correct, it took a lot of deliberation on the part of bankers who were friendly to downtown Baltimore before the couple got their mortgage. Soon the big old house became a bed-and-breakfast. And then a restaurant opened on the ground floor. And the openings -- and closings -- of that restaurant seemed to me to be something of a barometer of Baltimore's health.

Often, the places I enjoy most here are not the ones that get good buzz. I always say that in Baltimore, you must do your own detective work and make your own critical judgments.

Novelist Laura Lippman has referenced Baltimore's cycle of peaks and lows in her books. She is correct. Over the past 35 years, Baltimore has gone forward, backward and sideways. I've been watching the thing happen for so long that I tend to be accustomed to all its curiously unpredictable movements.

If you live in Baltimore, you'll be used to change. It's like the fortunes of the Orioles: They have good years, and, well ...

When looking at Baltimore, it's best to consider the big picture.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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