Path of building cranes tracks the disappearance of blue-collar Baltimore

July 08, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

A cabdriver friend told me the biggest changes he'd observed in Baltimore recently were in the Perkins Square-Myrtle Avenue area off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. So, following up on his urban observation, he drove me there. In a few minutes, I began a kind of game, following the construction cranes to see what's happening in our city this summer.

During a long walk, I got a jolt when I saw the new-to-me University of Maryland biotech buildings on the west side of MLK, at Baltimore and Poppleton streets.

I glanced through a chain-link fence to see if there were any remains of the foundation of the Alexandrofsky, a residential tour de force of Victorian excess that came down in the 1920s and was replaced by rather ordinary commercial buildings. Sorry. No trace of the winter palace of famed 19th-century inventor and locomotive designer Ross Winans, who summered at his house in Leakin Park.

As you walk around the expanding University of Maryland neighborhood, on either side of MLK, you cannot help but think how quickly the old, blue-collar Baltimore is falling away, replaced by jobs in medicine and science.

I was also reminded of the projections that Mel Levin, a University of Maryland professor, made more than 25 years ago: that Baltimore was on its way to becoming a city of prosperity and poverty, all in the same jurisdiction.

My trip around Poppleton Street confirmed his findings. This summer, the black-eyed Susans are all over the front gardens at Camden Crossing, a section of rowhouses (once an iron foundry) off Washington Boulevard and south of the B&O Museum. A construction crew was in the first stages of starting a new batch of these homes. Some people who must have been original occupants were beginning to get off work about 4:30 one afternoon. They all seemed to be driving not-cheap sport utility vehicles.

For old times' sake, I walked though the adjoining Barre Circle neighborhood, where as a reporter in the late 1970s I spent time when this was one of the city's $1 homesteading locales. The trees have grown; the bricks have mellowed; and the streets appear a lot more lived-in. So does the next-door enclave of Ridgely's Delight, where there are plenty of sycamores that remind me of 1950s Baltimore, when this variety of street tree was as common as today's Bradford pear.

Whoever came up with the idea of painting baseballs on the sidewalk near the Emory Street Babe Ruth birthplace wins my Most Valuable Player award. It's a nice touch for people walking around or for those who might get lost.

Approaching Oriole Park, I followed more cranes. There's a lot going on in once-vacant space around Pickles Pub. Who would have thought this chunk of land would be filled with a large building constructed around the curve where Russell Street snakes around the ball park?

There are a lot more construction cranes working this summer -- on Aliceanna, on Key Highway, on Water Street -- but I was now too tired to track these down.

I ended at the site of the new Convention Center hotel north of Camden Station. For most of my adult life, this has been a parking lot, save for a little gas station that hung on for decades.

Now it's gone, too.

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