Inviting shoppers to explore

Program urges patrons to support stores in different city neighborhoods


With its light-hearted mix of vintage furnishings such as Formica tables and space-age atomic wall clocks, Chris Caprinolo's Retro-Mart would be right at home in Hampden's hip commercial strip.

But anyone looking for her funky 1950s-era merchandise needs to travel instead to a less glamorous shopping district: Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.

This holiday season, Caprinolo and merchants like her are getting help attracting customers to their doors. A new city-funded promotion called "Miracle on Main Street" aims to persuade holiday consumers to leave their mercantile comfort zones and shop all over the city, including Highlandtown and nine other urban commercial districts, from tonier areas such as Federal Hill and Fells Point to less prosperous places such as Waverly, East Monument Street, Pennsylvania Avenue and Pigtown.

At a news conference set for this morning at Anderson Automotive on Howard Street, Mayor Martin O'Malley and other civic boosters will officially launch the Main Street promotion and promote a bundle of related incentives, including drawings for a new car, airline tickets and shopping sprees in each district. Through the holiday season, each "Main Street" area will also lure visitors with caroling, tree lightings, visits with Santa and free weekend parking until Christmas.

The program, which began after Thanksgiving, is not the only local offensive against the malling of America. Baltimore County's "ReDiscover Your Neighborhood Downtown" campaign urges consumers to frequent 12 county shopping districts, among them far-from-chic areas such as Essex, Woodlawn Village, Liberty Road, Arbutus and Parkville.

The Main Street promotion offers residents and visitors an opportunity to discover that certain neighborhoods aren't as "dodgy" as they might fear, says Mary Pat Fannon, director of the 5-year-old Baltimore Main Streets program, funded by the city and modeled on a National Trust for Historic Preservation program.

But could people do all their holiday shopping in, for example, Pigtown?

"Absolutely, believe it or not," says Jack Danna, manager of the Washington Boulevard Main Street program. He points to the new Yabba Pot vegetarian cafe, Housewerks, an architectural salvage store, as well as such standbys such as Kang's Mart, where "you can buy anything from $5 gloves to Neutrogena body lotion, all the way up to the wig that you need."

"The beauty of this promotional event is that it brings a collective spirit to urban commercial districts, which has otherwise gone by the wayside with the flight of retailers," Danna says. Miracle on Main Street also invites visitors to become acquainted with neighborhoods in a way that isn't possible "if you just drove by," he says.

Even those who take pride in Baltimore's reputation as a city of distinctive neighborhoods are prone to forsaking them for suburban big-box stores. When Johnette Richardson became director of Belair-Edison's Main Street program two years ago, she took for granted the inclination of people to patronize malls. Her new job "really opened my eyes to a lot of what Baltimore City had to offer in different communities."

Ultimately, Baltimore Main Streets' goal is to assist each of its districts in acquiring basic commercial necessities, from places to buy socks to automatic teller machines, Fannon says. The process is not so much about creating trendy pockets of shopping for customers with disposable incomes as it is about supporting existing mom-and-pop stores and appealing to potential merchants. Preserving a neighborhood's commercial strip these days requires a delicate balance of pragmatism, safety assurances, nostalgia and authenticity, Fannon and other Main Street participants say.

Katie M. McKenna, director of Highlandtown's Main Street program, is well aware of the competing pressures.

Longtime residents want to see the revival of their commercial corridor, but often have a difficult time accepting that empty storefronts will be filled by new enterprises, such as a Mexican-themed sports bar, and not the shops they remember, she says.

Retro-Mart's Caprinolo says she was eager to put down stakes in a commercial frontier.

"Hampden is already finished and fun, and [it's] what we're trying to do in Highlandtown," she says. Caprinolo, whose shop has been open for a year, says she has yet to see throngs of daytrippers along Eastern Avenue browsing in shops. "I wish it was more of that," she says.

But the notion of Highlandtown becoming a "destination location" like Hampden is not entirely far-fetched. In recent years, several of the corridor's grim facades have given way to attractive new establishments, including Doggie Depot, a source of grooming, day-care and pet supplies; Chicken Loco, a Latino restaurant; and the Creative Alliance arts center.

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