Harboring success

ARCHITECTURE

A documentary explores how the redevelopment of Baltimore's waterfront became a marvel, then a model for cities across the globe

June 09, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

For Baltimoreans accustomed to seeing their hometown depicted in less than glowing terms on television series such as The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street, a new production takes a rosier point of view.

Global Harbors: A Waterfront Renaissance is an hourlong documentary about Baltimore's revitalized waterfront and how it has become a model for ports around the world. It airs at 10 p.m. tomorrow on Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67).

Instead of fictional drug dealers and city officials with questionable ethics, viewers will meet Susan Leviton, an urban homesteader who paid $1 for a house that she renovated in Otterbein, even though her grandmother cautioned that she spent "50 cents too much." They'll also meet Sandy Hillman, a public relations executive who feared she was moving to the "armpit of the world" when her husband announced the family was relocating to Baltimore, but who ended up promoting it to others by organizing city fairs and ethnic festivals.

Instead of exploring the city's underbelly, viewers will be treated to picture-postcard views of the downtown skyline, tourist attractions filled with smiling vacationers and neighborhoods that have improved over time.

In many ways, Global Harbors is the Un-Wire. It doesn't deny the existence of crime and poverty and dysfunction in the city, but it starts with the premise that the glass is half-full. It shows Baltimore as a place where good things can happen when people put their minds to it. It dares to suggest that 50 years of rebuilding may be paying off.

"It's great for Baltimore," said M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. and one of the civic leaders who was interviewed for the program. He saw a preview last week. "It will be a terrific marketing piece. Different folks will have different views of who did what when. But it's a fascinating study."

Global Harbors was produced by journalists Cari Stein and Kim Skeen of Ivy Media and narrated by Baltimore-born actor and director Charles Dutton. It examines how the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor transformed a blighted stretch of waterfront into a cultural and entertainment destination that became a model for the rejuvenation of other harbor cities around the world.

Much of the information came from Martin Millspaugh, a Baltimore native who, as a journalist, public official, private developer and planning consultant, has devoted much of his life to the city's revitalization.

In the 1950s, Millspaugh covered urban affairs and city government for The Evening Sun. From 1960 to 1985, he managed nonprofit organizations that oversaw the redevelopment of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor. He later joined with developer James Rouse to show leaders of other cities how to learn from what Baltimore did and improve their own waterfronts.

Over the years, Millspaugh compiled a slide show that chronicled the city's growth and showed it to groups that came to Baltimore to learn about its transformation. He worked with Stein and Skeen to turn that raw material into a high-definition documentary that combines archival films and photos with new footage, including dozens of interviews with civic leaders instrumental in turning around Baltimore and other cities.

During the second half of the 20th century, many waterfront cities around the world began to decline as a result of suburban sprawl, changes to the shipping industry and other factors. Baltimore was one of the port cities where once-prosperous harbor frontage was abandoned by shipping interests and became rotting, rat-infested piers. The documentary shows how Baltimore's leaders took action to rebuild the core.

"You get one chance to redevelop your hometown," Millspaugh says in the program. "Failure was not an option."

The first half-hour outlines the steps the city took to pull itself out of its doldrums. It touches on many of the stories that have become urban legend in Baltimore - how visionary planners fought plans for an interstate highway that would have cut the city off from its waterfront; how then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's dip in the National Aquarium in Baltimore's seal pool drew worldwide attention; how hundreds of thousands of people ventured downtown to see eight tall ships that visited the harbor for the nation's bicentennial, suggesting that Baltimore could attract tourists.

The second half of the program focuses on a development that even many Baltimoreans may not be aware of - the extent to which Baltimore's rejuvenated waterfront became a template for other cities seeking to revitalize their own harbors.

According to Millspaugh, 90 to 100 cities on five continents have been influenced in one way or another by Baltimore's rebuilding efforts.

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