Change in the city isn't such a bad thing

Residents shouldn't be so quick to say no to retailers who want to move in

May 22, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

I'll fess up. I've cast some negative votes. I said no to Harborplace and the aquarium when these enterprises were placed on the ballot more than 30 years ago. I was skeptical and resistant to change. It's taken me three decades to learn the value of saying yes to change and its possibilities.

I watched a decade ago when the trustees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library closed the little library on St. Paul Street near my front door. It was the place where I had checked out my summer reading books. It was also a little Victorian treasure of golden oak and high ceilings. Once the library pulled out, I thought the old Branch Six was a goner. I thought it might be made into condos at best; at worst, another takeout.

I lacked faith. My neighbors did not. They rallied. Community activists filed a lawsuit and shut down St. Paul Street's traffic by staging an elaborate funeral march for their library. There were shrouds, flowers and tombstones. There was a lawsuit to keep the branch open, which the community lost, in one sense.

The building was turned over to another group and was beautifully renovated. A coal-cellar basement became classrooms and a crumbling parking lot became a thriving garden. Today, it's the Village Learning Place. It looks for all the world like the neighborhood library I knew as a child. It might even look a little better.

Ten years ago, the nonprofit Learning Place opened with a lofty mission to promote literacy, cultural awareness and lifelong learning. I was skeptical of this one, too. Would they come? The answer has been yes. When my Calvert Street neighbor Phyllis Jaslow began promoting a series of evening lectures, I thought these won't draw. I was wrong again.

I've been listening to some people condemn the idea of a Walmart and Lowe's hardware store around the corner from the Learning Place at the A.D. Anderson site at Maryland Avenue and 25th Street. I guess the years of having nothing like this in Baltimore conditioned people to expect there'll never be the kind of goods generally available right in the city.

Yet I grew up in a Baltimore and a Charles Village where all the goods available at Walmart and Lowe's were within walking distance. It was such a walking city that I gave up driving 40 years ago. We had neighborhood lumberyards, sawmills, paint stores and garden shops; and we had variety shops and department stores, all of them competing on price. It was the city that was filled with the stores; the suburbs seemed like cornfields.

Somehow, all that went haywire. Retailers with reliable, sensibly priced goods fled Baltimore. A few weeks ago, I was getting ready for an overseas trip and needed a few basics for traveling. I hit up some friends and before I knew it, I was in a Shrewsbury, Pa., Walmart. I thought I was crazy, but a number of my city friends say they go this distance to shop.

Being a nondriver, I watch the extremes that other car-less Baltimoreans endure. I observe hardy senior citizens taking multiple buses to get their prescriptions filled at the Port Covington Walmart. Can't we have one closer to home than the Middle Branch of the Patapsco? I met a man who lives on tiny Tyson Street in Mount Vernon. He told me of taking the Metro to get to a Home Depot in Owings Mills. That is my idea of determination.

I watched as Sears closed its North Avenue store. It's a sad commentary on life in Baltimore, but what was once a big retailer is now a courthouse. And despite years of a successful harbor, what is there is for tourists, not really Baltimoreans who need a place to buy basics. Maybe we just need to stop saying no to the people who bring new ideas and change to the Baltimore that is itself changing in so many positive ways. I'm ready to accept a fresh start.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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