West side of downtown proves change is a constant

April 15, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

I was on a walking mission for pecan nougat Easter eggs this week when I turned west off Charles Street at Lexington. Even though I had read several articles about plans for a new look for Center Plaza, I was not ready for what I saw: Construction crews were sawing the trees that lined this 1960s square, and bulldozers were crunching paving stones.

Yikes, here we go again! I am just old enough to have known and enjoyed the part of Baltimore that existed before the Charles Center and the modernist urban renewal doctrine was imposed on this part of town. I didn't buy it then, and time has not treated the city's first efforts at rebuilding itself kindly. But I now know that change is constant.

I was a little more jolted because during Holy Week 50 years ago, I would have been spending some time within the old Maron's candy store that was part of the Lexington Street scene.

I couldn't help thinking about once-vibrant Lexington Street: The Sound of Music at the New; whatever MGM had at the Century; the 4-cent table at Julius Gutman's; the hot dog counter at Kresge's; Woolworth's banana splits; and inexpensive summer kitchen curtains at W. T. Grant's. It was Baltimore's selling and entertainment boardwalk.

But let's give the now-besieged Center Plaza its due. It was here that some of the first City Fairs were held. And didn't the plaza, once partially set off by an overhead walkway, become a fine staging place for all sorts of protests and strident speeches?

In its day, when Baltimore's downtown was more focused, the plaza seemed the center of the urban universe of the Johnson-Nixon years. I seem to remember garbage collection strikes and Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. workers protesting for higher wages here.

The plaza was also the scene of a nasty Flower Mart mini-riot that I'd like to forget, except I happened to be downtown that day and witnessed this orchestrated act that rattled the city's equilibrium in those years.

And what about the ugly sculpture symbolizing energy that once stood in the plaza? It was right up there with the metal thing that sits in front of Penn Station. The energy sculpture somehow got moved, and the last time I saw it, it rested inoffensively in a site off Russell Street.

I often encourage anyone who will listen to go back and visit the newly named Westside, which has to be one of the most tortured parts of town. Consultants told the city and downtown groups it needed to change; the problem was, it couldn't. It really wanted to be the regional shopping hub, which it hasn't been for more than three decades.

It's funny. So many of the stores and chains that laid Howard and Lexington low in the 1960s are now themselves gone.

After I passed the construction fence around the battered plaza, I came to the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Building, where my grandfather once had an office. It too was being ripped apart, gutted and rebuilt as apartments for people who are living downtown.

Baltimore disbelievers should look again and reconsider, but don't expect a matinee at the Towne Theater. For all my fussing, these streets possess a resilience and grit. After all, isn't Little Women playing at the Hippodrome? (And by the way, those nougat Easter eggs from the Lexington Market disappeared the day I bought them.)

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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