Change takes time at city's Clipper Mill

Construction on houses has resumed, holding promise for the neighborhood

October 22, 2010|Jacques Kelly

For the past two decades, I've been wandering around Woodberry's Clipper Mill neighborhood and observing its constant rhythm of change. I knew it as a 1980s mysterious warren of artists' studios; I reported the night the complex burned in a horrifying multi-alarm blaze; I've watched its stout stone walls get rebuilt in a dazzling recovery process. If you have only visited its best-known business, the Woodberry Kitchen, and missed the rest, you have overlooked one of industrial Baltimore's most interesting and ancient corners.

Most recently, after remaining static in the financial residential mortgage meltdown of 2008, construction has restarted anew at the cluster of glass-filled houses built into a remote corner of Druid Hill Park known as Overlook Clipper Mill.

I stood back and thought, who would have believed that these contemporary houses would be on the rise again. For too long, this was a place of empty foundations and financial disappointments. When completed, there will be only 38 terraced houses here. But the aim was to make them a special and new design element in a place where cast-iron industrial parts were once made. About 20 remain to be sold.

I was in the right mood to visit the 3400 block of Woodberry Ave. on a fine autumn afternoon. New, model houses have an attraction. You want to look at something put out for display and your consideration.

The model residence I visited had been filled with the Baltimore-themed artwork of some friends — Rodney Cook and Charlene Cook, as well as works by Thomas Bauley, Joseph Craig English, Crystal Moll and Lauren Preller. Real estate sales dynamo Cindy Conklin told me they dropped the prices on the homes here to reflect financial reality. What had sold for $700,000 is now about $500,000.

It was encouraging to see construction workers busy again at what had been, not so many months ago, a place where everything was halted, a place of bare, unattended foundations with weeds growing. Who wants to see a bold dream stifled?

Baltimore's ability to reinvent itself in so many places is one of the city's greatest tricks. I looked around at Clipper Mill that afternoon and peered into glass blower Anthony Corradetti's studio, where an artisan was working with white-hot glass. An old foundry building was filled with apartments, with tenants coming and going. Could there be a more stylish swimming pool than Clipper Mill's? And while Clipper Mill seems cool, I also felt that Baltimoreans lived here and worked here as well, thanks to all the offices and studios that have been so artfully integrated into the neighborhood.

I traveled southward along Falls Road after my visit to Overlook Clipper Mill. Both the venerable Druid Mill and the Mount Vernon Mills seemed poised for the same reworking that Clipper Mill is receiving. Their stone walls and big windows, the interiors where the mill hands made the cotton canvas used in ships' sails, could house all new uses.

On this fall day, you could feel the promise of the centuries about to happen. It will not be long before more of Baltimore's old mills will make the same trip as their Clipper cousin.

Certainly the same financial upheaval that checked the progress at Clipper Mill slowed their redevelopment in the past few years. News stories indicate that they will be reworked in the next cycle of Baltimore development.

You have to exercise patience. So many pieces of old Baltimore industry along the Jones Falls Valley are ready to move on after years of serving as mills, then decades more as being little more than warehouses. But Baltimore does not have the deepest pockets. Change in this valley has been deliberate.

My trip along Falls Road ended as it met Maryland Avenue near Penn Station. There, I considered yet another project now being initiated. The new steel framing has risen to enlarge the Lyric's backstage area so opera sets can be handled more easily. How long have we been considering this project? It's been talked about all my life. Some dreams do come true in old Baltimore. They just take time.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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