Inner Harbor Eiffel Tower?

Our view: Sprucing up the city's top tourist attraction makes sense, but the idea has to be uniquely Baltimore, not Paris on the Patapsco

May 05, 2011

No doubt the city and the Baltimore Development Corp. are right that the Inner Harbor, like any tourist attraction, needs updating every now and then. But some of the proposals they've gotten for a new signature structure feel a bit random — more like the latest version of the "Man/Woman" sculpture at Penn Station than Baltimore's answer to the Eiffel Tower.

A 13-story tall "aerophare" that would take a dozen passengers at a time up to an observation point near the Light Street Pavilion would be striking but alien. There is nothing about it that says "Baltimore." The same goes for a giant Ferris wheel (that's either Chicago, where the first one was constructed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and where one anchors Navy Pier, or London, where the Eye is a now famous part of the landscape). And the aerial tramway? Sorry to say they're already talking about one of those in a certain West Pennsylvania burg. We might as well propose a Federal Hill Incline.

Some of the other proposals are for lower-key entertainment destinations, like fancy mini-golf courses, carnival rides, wall climbing and beach volleyball. Those are all fine ideas and have the advantage of being temporary. We could have mini-golf for a year or two, then a ropes course or rock climbing. Those would be fine regional draws, enough to persuade a family to mosey from Camden Yards down to the harbor before or after a game.

But there is something appealing about the idea of a bold, new landmark structure. The trick, though, is finding the right idea for Baltimore. The Gateway Arch belongs to St. Louis, the gateway to the West. The Statue of Liberty evokes memories of New York's history as the entry point for millions of immigrants. The Washington Monument and its peers on the National Mall embody the seat of our political power. Plunking a giant marble obelisk in Cleveland wouldn't quite be the same. Great landmarks reflect something recognizable about their respective cities, and we need to be careful to make sure that whatever we allow to be constructed in our most prominent location is not just novel but uniquely Baltimore.

The question is what that would be. Just as we can't seem to settle on a municipal slogan that doesn't quickly succumb to self-deprecating parody (City that Reads/City that Breeds/City that Bleeds; Believe/Behave/Beehive), perhaps we lack the requisite uncritical boosterism to envision a grand representation of ourselves. Or perhaps it is simply harder, in our post-industrial incarnation, to pin down exactly what Baltimore is all about. That's the subtext of all the municipal hand-wringing over whether "The Wire" was bad for Baltimore. People wouldn't have been so worried about the show defining the city to the world as a cesspool of crime and corruption if they were more confident in an alternative and more flattering identity.

There may not be an easy answer for what would give the Inner Harbor the "wow factor" that the BDC wants. But we shouldn't force it, either. An advisory group is now studying the nine proposals for new Inner Harbor attractions and will make recommendations to the Inner Harbor Task Force, which in turn will make recommendations to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She should resist the temptation to do something big for the sake of doing something big. If that means we settle for mini-golf for now, that's better than jamming something that doesn't fit into the Inner Harbor.

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