Unexpected renaissance on Greenmount

April 03, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

I've long given up predicting where and how Baltimore will reinvent itself. So, one day this week, on a walk down Guilford Avenue, I spotted the construction a few blocks east. I also drew a deep breath.

A new structure was rising at Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street facing the Gothic Revival entrance to Green Mount Cemetery. On a perfect spring day, with the old burial ground's walls enclosing hundreds of flowering and budding trees, it seemed perfectly natural for some new housing to be rising here. Why not? It's convenient, and the mossy cemetery, with its Victorian monuments and chapel, is quite a pleasant, if sobering, sight.

But wait. Greenmount and Oliver? Is this where another urban renaissance is supposed to happen?

It's a location with a history. I passed this address almost weekly on the old No. 8 streetcar. Before it was demolished some years ago, 1500 Greenmount Ave. was the home of the Lord Baltimore Press. This was a concrete fortress of a building that became the headquarters of the city's Department of Public Welfare about 60 years ago.

I spent some time in this building, too, because my mother was a social worker, and after she left that job to raise a family, she didn't leave her friends. The women she worked with had their offices there, and we'd often drop by for a visit.

The women my mother had worked with regarded the printing building as something of a rat trap. It was an aging, unstylish industrial building that had seen better days, but that was where the city placed its social services staff.

In Baltimore of the 1950s, this was more likely a third-class or worse address. There was still some light manufacturing going on here into the early 1980s. I can recall some trips to the 1500 block of neighboring Guilford Avenue, where men's and women's clothes were being stitched up in loft buildings. You could walk down the street and hear the sewing machines whirring away. Porters moved wheeled racks of dresses and coats.

How much Easter Parade finery would have hailed from the Oliver Street corridor before it made its way to the Howard Street department stores and a promenade on Charles Street?

You could buy "off the rack," if you knew the right person; I'm not sure that cash was ever turned down. Baltimoreans love bargains and being able to buy and barter at the source made the transaction a little more interesting.

In time, social services moved out of the old Lord Baltimore Press building. It was demolished and now, on my recent trip here, it is the latest Baltimore exercise in going from nowhere to somewhere.

News articles talk of the $15 million development of "rent-controlled artists' residences and affordable townhomes for the creative class."

Why not? How long will it take before the long-abandoned Lebow clothing factory, another Oliver Street house of men's tailoring, will become home to apartments and lofts?

As long as it will take Baltimoreans to regain knowledge of this neighborhood.

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