I live about three-quarters of a mile from the Inner Harbor and have for close to seven years now, but I would not say it's one of my favorite places to frequent on a Friday night — or any other night. Sure, the harbor offers great waterfront views and a number of upscale restaurants, but most Baltimoreans would likely tell you that the Inner Harbor is for the tourists. The Inner Harbor is a moneymaking machine dreamed up 30 years ago, and it's still making money. Isn't it about time Baltimoreans took back the harbor?
If you look through the list of shops and restaurants in the Harbor Place pavilions, you'll see that many are chains and all are aimed at taking advantage of the tourist market. Admittedly, they do quite well. But where do I and many other natives spend our money? In Federal Hill, Mount Vernon, Fells Point, Charles Village and any number of other neighborhoods in Baltimore City, none of which have a "wow factor." What they do have is their distinct character, vibe, diversity and charm. Yes, this is Charm City — not kitsch city or "wow" city. In fact, with the right investments, policies and vision, the Inner Harbor can be a place where Baltimoreans will go for reasons besides shopping and upscale dining.
Actually, it was not too long ago that there was such a vision. There was talk of green space, an underground parking garage and even a dog park for the city's residents at Rash Field. Now, in place of a proposal to use this space for the people who pay taxes to maintain it, there are proposals for zip lines, observation towers and Ferris wheels, and dreams of drawing still more tourists to the Inner Harbor. But make no mistake; this is not a vision for the future of Baltimore. It's a vision for a theme park built on public land.
There are ways to give the Inner Harbor a facelift without compromising the charm and beauty of our city. Take Chicago's Millennium Park as an example. For those who have never been to Millennium Park, it is equal parts public art, public space and tourist attraction. People come from all over the United States and the world to see the vision of a public space with something for everyone that now sits in downtown Chicago. I have no illusions that Baltimore is or can be Chicago, but I also see no reason why we can't follow in her footsteps and perhaps — with the right guidance and vision — eventually start to walk our own path. Unfortunately, this will never happen if we take steps in the wrong direction.
We've come too far to let the Inner Harbor become an experiment in urban amusement parks. In many ways, it is the linchpin that holds this city together, and there is so much potential and hope that comes from it. For every snide comment made about "The Wire," there is also one about how impressive Baltimore's Inner Harbor is. The harbor has shown us, as Baltimoreans, how to "believe" that we can come back; how to see that, despite what we've been through as a city, there is an opportunity for change; and, most importantly, it has taught us that if we invest in ourselves, others will follow suit.
I am proposing that we make an investment in ourselves and not sell out to the tourists the way that so many other cities have done. The Inner Harbor, if it is to be revitalized in any way, must address the needs of Baltimoreans, not merely the desires of her visitors. With her own best interest in mind, Baltimore's Inner Harbor could become a destination for residents and tourists alike. However, the current proposals contain nothing for the resident. I, for one, will not be riding a trackless train to get to work; nor will I frequent a Ferris wheel.
Jake Stern lives in Federal Hill. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.