Nov 06, 2023, 11:21PM

Reviving Baltimore’s Horribleplace

Is it possible to make Baltimore's waterfront a desirable destination to dine, drink, and shop? Here's a reality check.

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Local newsprint pundits and pseudo-journalists have weighed in, giving their indignation, dismay and bad advice about Baltimore’s Harborplace. They know what’s best for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor revitalization plans. The city has given its bankrupt blessings to MCP Real Estate’s David Bramble and his cohorts to rebuild Harborplace and the surrounding real estate. Making way for obscenely garish modern-day architectural designs in the name of inner-city progress in the middle of bargain-basement blight. It's not the best place to ride out the new dystopias. Honestly, I have no nag in this rigged race, since I have about as much admiration for my hometown as it has for me.

Still. As if by some miracle, the new, improved Harbor area will be the ultimate answer to all the thoughts and prayers of a city in an unquestionably rapid decline. Bramble, the “designer” of the new, improved Inner Harbor, stated, “Harborplace is the beating heart of Baltimore—the place that is uniquely Baltimore that brings us all together. In recent years, it has reflected the mood of the city but not the hope of the city.” Stat! Bring out the defibrillator and oxygen tanks. These guys are sucking all the air out of the waterfront.

Bramble rambles on, “This project and this design activate the waterfront in a way that ensures it is for everyone in our city, our region, and our State. We prioritized listening to the community to hear what they wanted and marrying it to what could actually be built. I’m so proud to share these plans with all of Baltimore because we deserve an internationally renowned waterfront that belongs to all of us.” It sounds like a lot of lip-service gobbledygook. The community voice I hear is obvious, their plans are non-inclusive, lack diversity, and are obscenely unaffordable. In other words, history is repeating itself in a mega-belch of same-old crap, different-day hype.

Against the local public interest, also known as the people of Baltimore, MCB proposed to construct hundreds of private residential condominium units. Directly in the artificial heart of the Inner Harbor that’ll rise higher than the two present buildings, obscuring all existing waterfront views. The SE corner of Pratt and Light Sts,, originally named the doorway to Harborplace, was created as an open-court public space. Leading to the entrance where once beautiful water fountains were, until the city demolished them a few years ago. MCB's plans will delete the idea of an entrance to the new Harborplace as an open area for people to congregate. If the city has its way and allows MCB developers to get their green light to proceed, it’ll turn Harborplace into a private country club for rich residents and businesses geared toward tourist trap consumerism. It sounds like Kevin Plank's Under Armour hat hijacked Ferry Bar Park and the Fells Point Recreation Pier building. It’s a new kind of insidious blight for the privileged white, affluent people who don’t give a damn about the rest of its citizens. The people of Baltimore should reject any proposal that will compromise the locals' desired perception of its public space, destroy street-level waterfront skylines, or build facsimile sails of cement and brick that blot out the natural harbor's cityscape views. 
The following was written by Gene Denys Ward, a lifelong friend and fellow Baltimorean. Her article was published in 1982 (shortly after Harborplace opened) in a Richmond weekly called Throttle. 

“These are perhaps minor observations that ought to be expected when a successful tourist attraction opens up in your city. Specific observations about Harborplace, there appears to be a noticeable principal absence of blacks in the restaurant's up-front positions such as host, hostess, waitress, waiter, bartender, et cetera. I do not know the reason for this. And perhaps it is being corrected, though I doubt it. Blacks are most visible as busboys, dishwashers, cooks, janitors, and sellers of hamburgers, pizza, etc. at the smaller food stalls where there is no sit-down service. Harborplace promised jobs for locals. It's hard to explain, but when you've lived in Baltimore for a long time, it's very easy to pick out Baltimoreans from people from other places, and even easier to distinguish city people from suburbanites. Most Harborplace restaurants do not reflect the food, attitude, or atmosphere of Baltimore. They are the same kind of restaurants you could find in almost any city in any state, a lot of them are reminiscent of DC or New York. Only Connolly’s (demolished long ago for the aquarium), which is a few blocks east of Harborplace, but a part of the harbor that’s real Baltimore. Farther east, Little Italy is a little more Baltimore, but even some of those restaurants are changing, sprucing up their appearance to be more like the Harborplace restaurants. Tourists come to the Inner Harbor to witness some of Baltimore's charm. Where is this charm? 
“Certainly not at Harborplace. In all my trips to Harborplace, the closest thing I've seen to real Baltimore is, 1. A group of four black teenage boys walking around the harbor, stopping periodically to attract a crowd with a cappella do-wop street corner harmonies. 2. a group of six high school cheerleaders singing in full uniform, strolling down the promenade, singing a high school fight song, and shaking their pompoms. 3. Young black teenage boys carrying large boombox radios blasting loud music and disturbing tourists. 4. Several hardcore white South Baltimore boys, drunk or stoned, were walking through the 4th of July crowds at Harborplace yelling fuck Iran, fuck Iran!

“The atmosphere, the food, the stores, even the view, and the surrounding hotels are the same as could be found in any major city in this country. Fortunately, a few blocks uptown, in the dying, deserted Howard Street business district, some of old downtown Baltimore is clearly visible. It isn't inhabited and patronized by Baltimoreans who either cannot afford Harborplace or can't find anything they’d ever want to buy at Harborplace. Or maybe they simply aren't allowed anywhere near the respectable tourists of Harborplace. Here on Howard Street and, respectfully, Lexington Mall, you will find the makings of a real city. Street corner preachers with microphones and loudspeakers. Bag ladies, jive time hustlers, young women shopping for bargains, and a McCrory's that still has balloons hanging from the ceiling in groups that you can burst to find out the cost of your banana split. 99 cent stores with loud music blasting on the streets. Places that do not sell quiche or Perrier water. Old ladies eating grilled cheese sandwiches made from processed American cheese on white bread at Woolworths lunch counter. Lottery machines, pubescent girls buying Maybelline cosmetics, and 59 cent nail polish. Stores that don't sell clothes with alligators on them or with the name of someone you don't know printed on them. People selling shopping bags for a quarter. Blind men and cripples selling pencils, religious fanatics, Moonies, selling flowers. Thunderbird winos passed out, undisturbed, at the entrance of the deserted Stewart's building, all the Baltimore city denizens who have no place at Harborplace.”

That’s real-life Baltimore, long forgotten, but vivid memories live on. Like the dream of James Rouse, who designed the original Harborplace. It’s seen better days, but I can count the number of times I actually ventured to Harborplace on one hand, and it wasn’t to go shopping. Jimmy Rouse has hopes of turning his father's legacy into a reality. Local brick-and-mortar retail shops, farm-to-table restaurants, an open-air farmers market, art galleries, and studios for local artisans to sell their art. Live entertainment venues for local artists and musicians. It sounds too good to be true. What's going to be different this time? As plans develop, we wait for the dust to settle on the final project's verdict. The citizens of Baltimore are being duped again. 

  • For consideration checkout what happened in Boston's Seaport area. This was a land of cheap parking lots until a few years ago. Today it is land of $1M condos, expensive resturants abd little character. Yeah it can me nice sit at waterfront bar for a drink. But it could have been better. Sadly profit and serving a slice of the population won out over other concerns. Oh and astronomical high tides sometimes bring Boston Harbor onto walk ways closest to the water.

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  • So real Baltimore is black or white teens being loud and annoying people? And we should be upset that gentrification did not make a space for that. What would this alleged charm of Baltimore be? A beauty shop like something out of "HairSpray"? A John Waters museum? A gay bar with Divine copying drag performers? An outdoor 50s style dance contest for the teens? The charm seems like it would either have to be a reproduction of something that no longer exist or the trash and boarded up buildings you find in other parts of Baltimore. If people want something else they can always go to Federal Hill or Canton Square.

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