Baltimore has gotten better at rebuilding its old self

July 29, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

While walking along a familiar street in a place I've been many times, I turned a corner and entered a Baltimore Twilight Zone. Was this the piece of Baltimore that I expected to be here? No.

This trick got played on me while killing some time this week before a lunch date in Fells Point. Uncharacteristically, I arrived early and thought I'd catch up with changes in the neighborhood and maybe look at the harbor. The heat added atmosphere to the late July haze that hung over the Domino sugar plant and Tide Point.

The harbor looked positively majestic. There is no shortage of the picturesque here -- in fact, a handful of artists were out with their easels and paint boxes.

Once you get off South Broadway, things quiet down nicely. The old streets, the Belgian blocks with their railroad tracks to nowhere, deliver the authentic goods you expect in a National Register of Historic Places neighborhood. It's preserved amenities like this that entice tourists to Baltimore and suggest that this part of town would not be a bad place to live. I was just about ready to call a real estate agent.

Working my way along Fell Street and mentally marking off the houses I've passed for decades, I took a turn at Wolfe and a turn again.

It hit me. It had changed. The familiar had become alien, but not unpleasant.

All of a sudden, this was a different act. The stagehands had changed the scenery on me, maybe substituting a whole new play.

There were buildings here I didn't recognize, all new to me, in a place I thought I knew like my own handwriting. OK, maybe the new buildings aren't new at all, but are just some kind of expensive restoration of the formerly shabby. Whatever its origins, it was a delight.

The high-quality woodwork details and granite sills made me think that this was not an on-a-tight-budget, 1980s-style Hechinger's renovation or bare-minimum new construction job. I quickly recovered and welcomed my new find, and was soon back to the comforting reassurance of Formstone Baltimore and window frames that could use a paint job.

But the experience did not evaporate. I got to thinking about how much better we've gotten at rebuilding old Baltimore, at making things fit in, look right, conform to real city ways -- the street, the sidewalk, the proportions of windows.

I think of a time, say 30-some years ago, when this was not the case. It was quitting time at the old afternoon daily, the News American. I was standing at a Calvert and Lombard (no Gallery or Harborplace then) bus stop with R. P. Harriss, my newspaper chum. Robin surveyed the scene as the Inner Harbor was beginning to take shape.

He looked at Pratt Street and exclaimed, "Oh, no. They've made it look like Towson."

Well, this was the 1970s, when we were reconstructing Baltimore to conform to suburban ideals and, worse yet, the torturing precepts of architects and planners who wanted everything to conform to their big, bold plan designed to cure all urban ills. In the past three decades, we've learned something: When building a new rowhouse, make it look like a rowhouse.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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