Old Town Mall’s deterioration captured in photographs

MICA student documents the urban-renewal project’s slide into neglect

April 23, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Part of Gay Street had a beauty makeover and became Old Town Mall in the 1970s. This two-block stretch of old commercial stores and a city market made national headlines as an example of urban renaissance more than 30 years ago.

Just a few blocks northeast of City Hall, Gay Street was closed to traffic, paved in brick and had a fountain and planters installed in the years after the riots following the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

James Singewald, 30, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate student in photography and electronic media, has taken a closer, highly disturbing look at the mall today for his master's thesis. In a series of luminous photographs, on display at the school's Fox Building on Mount Royal Avenue, he has documented how what was once a sturdy showplace is now a sad, dispirited and forgotten relic. His haunting and beautiful photographs reveal an overlooked part of Baltimore formed by poverty and neglect. It is a tale of urban renewal gone haywire; it also poses hard questions about urban policy and suggests how cities fail.

Singewald and I exchanged a few e-mails a while back when he was researching the history of Old Town, a neighborhood name derived from the 18th-century settlement along the Jones Falls.

"I was drawn to the Old Town Mall not only by its unique and isolated appearance, history and location, but also because I have a direct family connection to this historic place. Both of my great-great-grandfathers on my father's side of the family lived and worked in Old Town in the 19th and early 20th Century," he writes in a forward to the folio he has created as part of this project.

His German immigrant forebears made hats. Another family member owned the Ashland Cigar Emporium near the Wells-McComas Monument.

"Even abandoned, Old Town mall has retained its history, its past, its presence, and it still resonates for anyone who wants to take a closer look," he writes.

Viewing Singewald's work, I saw the mall's problems and its promise. The facing blocks of 19th-century architecture are amazing. The decision to close the street to traffic had the effect of sealing it off from the rest of Baltimore. As a quotation mounted on the exhibit wall states, you could walk past the mall and not know it exists. How many times have I sailed across Monument Street on a bus and had to crane my neck to confirm the street is still there?

Some of Singewald's most disturbing photos are of the site of the old Belair Market, which was razed in 2002. Once the center of the neighborhood, its site was used as a place to dump snow this past winter.

I admire his strong emotional reaction to the plight of Gay Street. I, too, had ancestors who were ardently proud to be from Old Town. The women in the family graduated from the nearby old, old Eastern Female High School. On Saturdays, we returned to Gay Street for marketing. In the 1960s, it was a boisterous, busy urban hub, so different from anything in the suburbs.

"The mall itself is in terrible condition," he writes. "The beautiful brick walkway is falling apart and littered with garbage. No more planters are left, just the concrete slabs where they once stood."

Leave it to an artist's eye to reveal and expose the things the rest of us might overlook.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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