The view from Federal Hill is sweeping and heartening

March 04, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

The view from Federal Hill Park was something out of a travel brochure this week: The air was clear, no haze; the Patapsco River looked as if it were ready for swimmers. One day, after the piercing March wind died down, a visit starting at Warren and Battery avenues delivers Baltimore's big picture. On so many other trips around the city, I encounter beat-up streets and abandoned houses. But on the jaunts around the hill's edge, you get a panoramic view that looks as if it were staged by the best directors and camera personnel.

Maybe the punishing winds made me feel my age. But for someone who has been doing this for 50 years, the experience of a Federal Hill look-and-see produces some unusual reactions.

It doesn't seem so long ago -- but it was -- that there were rusty freighters docked along the old Pratt Street piers. As late as 1980, there was a working ship repair yard at Key Highway, and at nightfall it was a beautiful sight, with a million incandescent lights twinkling on the dry docks and moving cranes. It's now HarborView.

The old harbor was very much a beehive of industry. I think of the McCormick plant and the nightly freight train that ran along Light Street. Its cars carried scrap iron and wood pulp.

It's almost scary how time gallops: It's been nearly 26 years since the summer day when Harborplace opened.

If a quarter-century is a shocker, then what about the past six months, when so much has taken place? One set of construction cranes disappears only for another set to rise. I'm going to miss some of my favorite unobstructed vistas when all the new buildings go up.

It's not hard to get an adrenaline rush here as you observe, like an angel looking down from a cloud, all the stuff going on. The late winter-early spring construction derby is off and running.

I got a kick out of listening to the pile drivers along Key Highway (remember, I don't live in South Baltimore, where the constant noise might not be so charming). But these big hammers strike the steel supports, producing one sharp bang, and then the sound travels across the water and echoes off Pratt Street.

After years of hype and discussion, the Ritz Carlton residences are under construction. I would love to have my South Baltimore ancestors around to hear their take on the fancy people living at the place where Key Highway takes a sharp bend.

But maybe not. Didn't my Kelly family members, after leaving Galway, Ireland, in the 19th century, settle here, on the water, so they could have the view, too?

On a clear March morning I looked over our majestic port and thanked the wise and visionary people and planners who figured out how Baltimore could make good use of all that harbor-front land that was going nowhere after shipping changed 35 years ago.

I looked out, toward the busy Domino plant and thought about how few good buildings had to be demolished for all this new construction.

Much of the current crop is on the old piers and wharves or the land immediately adjacent to it. Yes, these new townhouses (a bumper crop, too) draw staggering prices. But as I walk around, I begin believing the travel brochure before my eyes and leave the park agreeing that this is a world-class view -- and very Baltimore too.

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