Glowing signs illuminate the celebration of our industrial past

December 30, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY

The elevated red neon sign caught my attention. West of M&T Bank Stadium, it marked the newly named Gaslight Square. On a clear December night, this dazzling beacon was bidding a welcome to Pigtown, Carroll Park and Southwest Baltimore.

I would never have predicted the growth and rejuvenation in hardworking, industrial Southwest Baltimore. This often confusing landscape of old brass foundries, mattress makers, glass blowers and gas works is intersected by the very busy tracks of the CSX Railroad. It makes you recall that, at its heart, Baltimore is a busy industrial city in the process of making itself into something else.

So many developers are celebrating Baltimore's old industries. On any night, you can spot signs for Stieff Silver (in holidays colors this time of the year), Tide Point, Bond Street Wharf and National Beer's Mr. Boh.

Back to Pigtown's latest commercial project: Built between 1881 and 1883 for the Equitable Gas Works (gas was made from coal here), Gaslight Square is its own little campus of 2.7 acres and five buildings at Bayard, Bush and Severn streets. The big Gaslight sign sits atop a metal conveyor used for making marine paint at the old Davis plant.

Gaslight Square is about 20 percent leased and has three commercial tenants, an Internet business and two state agencies.

I did a little checking and found the source of the big new sign. It led to a friend of mine, developer Ian Neuman, who lives in Federal Hill. He had the sign turned on for the first time Wednesday night because, as a Ravens season ticket holder, he wanted to look west from the stadium and see his new project during tomorrow's big game. How's that for timing?

It's a funny thing. Old residential neighborhoods made up of dozens of rowhouses can take decades to come back and get fixed up. These industrial districts, where there are not a hundred pieces in individual ownership, can turn around in two or three years.

I cannot say that having the two sports stadiums along Russell Street had anything to do with all this. But here it is -- a new Hampton Inn rising off Russell Street, the ambitious University of Maryland building program and just a few blocks to the west, the B&O Museum filled with visiting families over the holiday period. A few blocks down Washington Boulevard is the former Montgomery Ward building, which a few years ago became Montgomery Park, also topped by a proudly glowing red sign.

I could never have predicted all this stuff. But then, who would have thought that Boston Street or Key Highway would be the place to live?

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