Mechanic Theatre Provides Cautionary Tale On How Not To Improve On Cities

January 13, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

When you are 16 years old and supposed to be doing Latin homework, you'll seize any excuse to waste time by looking out a window. On the night of Jan. 16, 1967, searchlights crisscrossed the downtown skyline. It was a big night for Baltimore -- the grand opening of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. Many blocks away, in what was just then starting to be referred to as Charles Village, I could see the evidence in the sky that Baltimore had a new playhouse.

Just yesterday, I walked past the old Mechanic, a building that is now closed and looking the worse for the wear. A construction fence surrounds part of it; some windows are removed; there is no evidence of the mink coats and Cadillacs of that opening night.

I guess because I've lived so close to the old downtown for so long, this part of Baltimore has held a strong attraction. I enjoyed many happy nights as a patron in this theater -- and spent four decades trying to warm up to its cold concrete walls and unexplained, strange-looking parapets.

But as blocky as the Mechanic looks, it holds plenty of pleasant associations. I see the dancers from the cast of Cabaret taking a break between their time on the stage. On one of those concrete projecting flanks, not visible to the pedestrians walking below on Baltimore Street, these players smoked as if they would never see another Marlboro. Then they went back on stage.

I walked past the stage door and thought of the time it opened and Deborah Kerr emerged. I also thought of 40 years' worth of rebuilding in this part of downtown Baltimore, the place we called Charles Center in the 1960s.

All that tearing down and rebuilding was supposed to be so progressive. Baltimore's elected officials had many friends in Washington, and the urban renewal money came to us by the bucket. We got busy and tore so much down. Now, 40 years later, this end of town seems to be the loser, with little energy.

Maybe we had to fix this, the old commercial, financial and legal section of the city, before moving on to the harbor. If anything, the 1960s were not a decade when planners and architects treated a city with sensitivity. Charles Center now seems so dated, so impersonal.

It's so easy to make mental corrections to the past. I'd like to have seen old Lexington Street saved, and the Century and the Valencia theaters preserved and used for theatrical events. I would have argued that many of the buildings along Redwood and Baltimore streets should have been recycled, as they would have been in the late 1970s and 1980s, as planners and architects were learning their lessons of how cities behave.

If we've learned anything in the last four decades since that night that the Mechanic opened, it's that you don't have to be afraid of cities. Often it's best to just use what's there.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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