Restaurants Long Vacant Are Reminders That City Is Slow To Renew

November 11, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

How long will a commercial building sit vacant in Baltimore, even along a well-traveled street that seems otherwise to be a business-healthy rialto? It's as if Baltimore has a short supply of entrepreneurial talent -- or maybe we complain too much about a lack of parking.

I was snooping around near the Washington Monument this week and taking in the great weather that my father, Joe Kelly, calls the Bonus Days. He means, of course, unseasonably fine weather, before everyone goes into hiding for the winter penalty period.

The sight of an urban Dumpster always attracts me. What is being thrown away? Could it find a new home in my cellar?

A work crew was ripping apart the long closed Gampy's at Charles and Read streets. I spent time during the 1980s in this place and recall an even earlier existence, the comfy old Mount Vernon Restaurant, with its dark wooden booths and little art deco lamps.

The smell of interior demolition permeated the place. The inside was stripped down to bare plaster walls; a ratty tin ceiling survived. I preferred to remember a late winter afternoon there years ago with a gang of friends. We had the croque-monsieur sandwich.

The workers told me the place was being set up as another eating place and that apartments will go upstairs. I thought: "This is good, but is this transformation about a decade late?"

Just up the street, the workers are gutting the old Danny's restaurant at Charles and Biddle streets as part of a major apartment block.

I recall its owner, Danny Dickman, who could put on a food show of amazing proportions. But he grew old, and the place has been padlocked since 1992. It was as if a Baltimore curse descended over what was once a busy address. It became an irksome reminder of how Baltimore can be slow to renew itself.

I've often wondered if commercial property owners recall the glory days too well and hold out for a price commensurate with expectations of times past.

A few blocks north, the old Chesapeake Restaurant, once one of the busiest in town, also has handcuffs on. Various news stories say the place will be sold, but I'm waiting for the Dumpsters to appear and the gutting to begin.

The neighborhood is far from asleep. Look at the always mobbed Tapas Teatro and Charles Theatre next door.

I too am guilty of great expectations. I think of a Charles Street with the Belvedere's wonderful basement coffee shop, or of the layer cakes and chopped liver at the Harvey House, or of the many shops where the wares were so expensive that my mother told me I'd have to make my own money before I could buy anything there.

During the Bonus Days, I walk around and observe diners happily sitting at sidewalk tables in other spots where the commercial magic has worked -- at Calvert and Read, where there's now a thriving restaurant in what had been an old garage, or along St. Paul in Charles Village. I could go on.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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