Penn Station Neighborhood Remains Full Of Surprises

July 18, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

I often find myself walking through the neighborhoods around Penn Station where Artscape is being staged this weekend. After years of not much happening, these blocks now seem to change before my eyes, even if so many of the buildings seem underused or boarded up. It's a curious part of Baltimore that often keeps its secrets to itself. Discovering what goes on here has proved a lot of fun.

There are artists' lofts and studios scattered around the Mount Royal-North Avenue area. The talented people here tell me they like the modest rents and are not concerned with modest exteriors. When you walk the alleys behind Calvert, Guilford and St. Paul streets near the railroad station, you can't help notice the renovated gardens and profusion of decks and patios.

Other alleys, like Lovegrove, behind St. Paul and Charles, where the Chaudron Glass Co. is located, seem like medieval London.

This is not a strictly conventional city district in terms of living units. There are Baltimore's backbone of traditional 19th-century rowhouses and a mix of old automobile showrooms, manufacturing plants and printer's buildings, tossed in with the venerable Lyric Opera House, the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Mount Royal Station, as well as Penn Station.

There seems to have been a student explosion here over the past decade. After years of being quiet presences, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Baltimore are making themselves felt here. It's hard not to notice the students when classes change. But on the recent otherwise sleepy July 4th weekend, this neighborhood was full of young people, too.

When I walk along North Avenue at night, something I would not have done five years ago for fear of crime, I am not alone. Patrons from the venues that have opened in the old North Avenue Market building are all over the place. I've been waiting more than 30 years for the Parkway Theatre to open its doors again. I might have to be patient for another decade, but this beauty is one of Baltimore's most glorious unrecognized spaces.

When will someone make good use of the old Center Theater (10 E. North Ave.), which Morris Mechanic opened in 1939? I wonder if its mural, which said, "The day is for work, romance is for night," survives?

I am also fascinated by some of the stuff going on here. Not long ago, a Greyhound subsidiary, the Bolt Bus, started a Baltimore base of operations alongside Penn Station. Bolt goes to New York City and undercuts Amtrak on fares by a wide margin.

Throughout the spring and summer, this cheaper bus service has really caught on, so much so that a crowd of people will be waiting for the 8:15 bus on a Sunday morning. I guess the lesson here is that the neighborhood has accessibility and parking - and people like it.

For a good while now, I've wondered how Baltimoreans would take to the Penn Station area, given the chance. In the spring of 1999, as the expanded and renovated Charles Theatre was having an opening, I wondered if it would find an audience.

On a warm spring afternoon, I sat on a bus bench and observed. On cue, cars and more cars appeared. People found parking in what then seemed like sketchy neighborhoods. Unafraid, they bought their tickets and watched their films.

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