Saving old buildings won't revitalize Baltimore's west side

April 04, 2011

I read with withering interest "History matters," an opinion piece by Stephanie Meeks in The Baltimore Sun on April 3. What is it that Ms. Meeks and other historic preservationists hope to preserve on Baltimore's west side? Let me suggest that Ms. Meeks is two-thirds of a cup shy of her stated objective.

Ms. Meeks claims that "Baltimore's primary market edge comes from the ambiance derived from its architecture and cultural heritage." Her quest to preserve historic buildings — the built environment — as a means of regaining or amplifying Baltimore's market edge is static, backward looking and one dimensional. In my mind the definition of a community's ambiance includes three elements: the built environment, demographic waves and Zeitgeist. All three of these elements are dynamic, changing in time. Ms. Meeks and her tribe of merry preservationists ignore the last two elements while doggedly pursuing a static interpretation of the first element.

We all understand the first element of ambiance — the built environment — which includes distinctive historic buildings. Curiously, Ms. Meeks disdains the demolition of Baltimore's historic fabric while in the same paragraph celebrating the enterprising businessmen who built Baltimore's now distinctive historic buildings. What once stood where they built their new buildings?

The second element of ambiance consists of demographic waves. Living in a port city, Baltimoreans understand wave motion — a wave comes in, recedes, and is followed by the next wave. History has shown that cities experience population shifts in waves. A wave of traders comes in, and then recedes. A wave of farmers comes in, and then recedes. A wave of immigrant merchants comes in and then recedes. A wave of blue collar workers comes in, and then recedes. A wave of artists and musicians comes in, and then recedes.

What about the demographic waves in Baltimore's west side? Politicians, bureaucrats and historic preservationists disrupted the natural demographic waves on the west side by evicting or relocating a wave of successful immigrant merchants with the promise of an imposed shared vision. What followed was an un-natural wave of vacant, decaying buildings and economic desolation, a wave that has not receded for 30 years.

Zeitgeist is the third element of ambiance. The Random House College Dictionary defines Zeitgeist as "the spirit of the time, general trend of thought or feeling of an era." Does Ms. Meeks long for the Zeitgeist of the 1920's, 1940's or 1960's? How would she achieve it? Do preserved historic buildings possess Zeitgeist? Today's Zeitgeist is defined by instant connectivity, portability and raw reality: Facebook, iTunes, eBay, text messaging, smart phones, cell phone cameras, iPads, Wi-Fi, You Tube and reality television. How does preserving old buildings square with today's Zeitgeist?

In conclusion, Baltimore's west side will never retain, recapture or amplify its market edge so long as redevelopment efforts are guided by preservationists such as Ms. Meeks who hold a static, one dimensional definition of ambiance. Let's hope our politicians and business leaders understand this.

Douglas R. Kington, Baltimore

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