Things change. I get it. Nothing stays the same. I get that, too. Change is constant. All right already! I get it! Look, I don’t want to turn into one of those bitter old writers, carrying on about how great Baltimore used to be and what a mess everything has become. In fact, I don’t even feel that way. There’s plenty of stuff in our past that I’m glad to be rid of—dressing the Orioles ball girls in outfits that made them look like Times Square prostitutes comes to mind.
But in my quarter-century of calling Charm City home, I’ve witnessed my share of bad decisions. And I don’t mean bad decisions in the sense of, “Oh, look, velour jumpsuits are on sale. I’ll buy one for my teenage son. He’ll love it.” I’m talking real bone-headed moves, that wasted real money, cost real jobs and simply made “The Land of Pleasant Living” a lot less pleasant.
What follow are 10 such decisions. Ten decisions that changed Baltimore … and not for the better.
Turning Howard Street into a ‘Transit Mall’
It’s hard to believe, but in the 1980s, Baltimore was actually bucking a national trend. Across the United States, the big urban department stores were closing, and moving into the rural malls. Yet Baltimore had not one, but two department stores still operating in its downtown. Yes, the demographics had changed. (That’s code, meaning mostly black people shopped in them.) But Hutzler Bros. and The Hecht Co. somehow managed to keep chugging along. The whole operation hinged on Howard Street being kept open for automobile traffic. Dutiful sons or daughters could drop their aging, gray-haired mother off in front of the store, cruise around the block a few times while the old gal shopped, then pick up mom and transport her back home. Everyone’s happy. Simple, no?
But wait. Along comes the Mass Transit Administration and a scheme to boost low rider numbers. They get the city to close Howard Street to cars. If people want to shop, the MTA reasoned, they could just ride the bus or subway. Bus lines were rerouted to Howard Street to make it look busy, but eventually several were moved over to Eutaw Street where they belonged in the first place. Surly Baltimore traffic cops were only too happy to help alter motorists’ driving habits by handing out hefty tickets to anyone who dared drive a car on the “Transit Mall.” Funny I should mention mall, because the next time the kids took their mothers shopping, that’s exactly where they went … the mall.
With no cars, and only an occasional bus, the overall effect on the street was one of abandonment. Hutzler’s closed soon thereafter, and Hecht’s left in 1989. Supposedly, the area is now on the verge of a comeback. Perhaps that is so, but those big department stores are gone forever. So one can only wonder what would have been, if the MTA had left well enough alone, and left the driving to us.
Closing Circle One Restaurant
Say it to yourself: Holiday Inn. The very name suggests white bread. It’s the known, the familiar, and the expected. With1,500 locations worldwide, rest assured that the Holiday Inn in Ashland, Ohio, is the same as the ones in Ashland, Ore., and Ashland, Ky.
Setting Baltimore apart from all the others was Circle One, a space-age, revolving restaurant perched atop an otherwise nondescript hotel. It was one of the first of its kind in the country and made one revolution per hour, offering views of the dowdy, surrounding neighborhood through the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Then, just when things were starting to happen at the Inner Harbor, someone at Holiday Inn decided that the restaurant should be shut down, gutted and turned into meeting rooms. In the ensuing years, between the excitement over Oriole Park and Cal Ripken’s consecutive-game streak, not to mention the cocktail and cigar crazes, and the embracing of all things retro, Circle One should have been the hottest restaurant in town. But instead, the space is occupied by business-form salesmen, sitting on stackable chairs, watching a Power-point presentation, while eating danish. Welcome to Ashland.
Killing The Evening Sun
On Friday, Sept. 15, 1995, I shot a photo of Baltimore Sun publisher Mary Junck receiving the last Evening Sun newspaper as it rolled off the press. I always liked Ms. Junck. She was a kindhearted soul. But there she was hoisting that paper up like Herodias carrying the severed head of St. John the Baptist. The only thing missing was a bloody sword. It was Mary’s job to kill The Evening Sun because it wouldn’t die by itself. Not that it didn’t get the chance: Over the years the staff had been cut, and cut some more. A newsroom merger meant that people who took the morning and evening papers were reading the identical story twice. Circulation slid, but even on that last day of publication, paid subscriptions stood at 86,000. There are plenty of newspapers around the country that would love to sell that many copies.
So let’s say that instead of killing The Evening Sun, the decision had been made to fix it. Visualize a snappy paper—perhaps in a tabloid format—a late story filling the front page. Inside could be updates from the morning edition. And lots of entertainment, arts and music stories that young people want to read. Sun management had been drooling over the City Paper’s readers forever, and here was a real chance to go after them in earnest.
But instead, Times Mirror, the Sun’s parent company at the time, chose to pull the plug. It killed The Evening Sun, and pocketed the money, because that’s what they do. It’s just business. Look for Times Mirror on the stock tables. Can’t find them? Oh, that’s right, they went out of business, too.
24-Hour Parking Meters
Here’s something fun for the whole family. Set your alarm clock for 3 a.m., then drive downtown and park on Guilford Avenue at Bath Street. You know the place; it’s under the Orleans Street Viaduct and the Jones Falls Expressway. Lock the car and walk around the block. When you get back, guess what will be waiting for you as a souvenir of your adventure: A parking ticket. That’s right. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, if you want to park in that no-man’s-land, you’d better have 25 cents in your pocket. Because the city is paying someone God-knows-what to write you a ticket and chase you away.
Let’s face it: Anyone who wants to come into downtown Baltimore after 6 p.m. should be given a free house. But instead, aggressive meter maids discourage visitors. Somehow the city has convinced itself that it can’t survive without the revenue from late night parking citations. The economic reasoning behind this escapes me. If you think I’m wrong, perhaps you should ask the numerous owners whose businesses have failed downtown. Bars don’t close because people have stopped drinking, and restaurants don’t close because people have stopped eating. They close because people stop coming. And for some people, a parking ticket is reason enough.
Moving the Main Entrance of the Baltimore Museum of Art
Beckoned to “The Fine Arts” by dual angels, hundreds of thousands of Baltimoreans, under the gaze of two cement lions, had climbed the 24 marble steps, and passed between the bronze doors of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Starting in 1929 and continuing for the next 53 years, it was so. I am glad to say I was among those who have enjoyed such a transcendental experience, for to enter the museum in such a fashion was to access a Temple of Culture. Once inside, the patron, dwarfed by 16 Ionic columns, was struck with an overwhelming sense of reverence. Six classical galleries, three on the left, three on the right, housed the permanent collection. And the procession through them was nothing short of religious.
But in 1982, that all changed. With the addition of the east wing came a new museum entrance, practical and handicapped-accessible. It is a noisy jumble of activity, reminiscent of an information desk at a convention center or an airport. Visitors wander about, trying to get their bearings, with faces reflecting a look I’ve come to know as, “Where’s the art?” Needless to say, piety is lacking.
I can’t bad-mouth the BMA, though. I’ve been to enough art museums around the world to know what a treasure we have here. Rauchenberg’s “Canyon,” Motherwell’s “Africa,” and Mondrian’s “Composition V” are always worth the price of admission, no matter how hard they are to find now. But, boy, do I miss that old entrance. And if the BMA board of directors would just give me my own key, I’d never bring up the subject again.
Eliminating the Hokey Men
First a history lesson. A hokey man is the fellow you see in old movies pushing around a cart and sweeping the streets. They were so named because that 50-gallon cart was called a “hokey.” Got it? Now on with the story.
Once there were hundreds of hokey men employed by the Department of Public Works. They made their rounds in Baltimore’s neighborhoods, business districts and parks. Was the city cleaner back then? Well, yeah.
The system worked because the concept was so basic: The hokey man saw a piece of trash, out in the open or beneath a parked car, or bench, or whatever, and swept it up. He would work one side of the street, then the other. When the block was clean, he moved on to the next one. Hardly rocket science, still, it got the job done. And remember, these weren’t exactly the highest-paid city employees, either.
But the ‘80s and ‘90s saw a need for government to streamline, modernize and reduce staff. Hokey men began disappearing from their duty stations around the city, replaced by various mechanical street sweeping apparatus, both large and small.
Public Works officials defend the move, claiming that street sweeping machines can cover more ground. They sure do. But take a good look at that ground after one of those sweepers goes by. A hokey man would have picked up every piece of trash that the machine missed. So we’re automated. Is the city cleaner now? Well, no.
Canceling ‘Rodricks for Breakfast’
For two hours every Sunday morning, Baltimoreans would turn on Channel 2 and watch newspaper columnist and local character Dan Rodricks host a TV show unlike any other. Broadcast live from WMAR’s studio on York Road, it was crammed full of talk, music and audience participation. With each segment, the viewer just didn’t know what was coming next. It was like something from another era, something from the Golden Age of Television. But this wasn’t the 1950s, this all happened between 1994 and 1999.
The spectacle knew no bounds. After a snowstorm, they aired live sledding down the hill in front of the Baltimore County Board of Education. Judges back in the studio rated each run, Olympic-style. Then there was the Christmas when they staged a variety show from the theater at the art museum, and jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut showed up at the last minute to play two beautiful spirituals. I always loved the gag where Dan would walk out the “magic door” on his set and step into a pre-taped bit out in the woods, or in a pizza shop in Highlandtown.
They don’t make television shows like that anymore. WMAR had it, everyone watched it, and then to save some money, they canceled it. “Rodricks for Breakfast” was replaced with infomercials that I never watched. And guess what? Neither did anyone else.
Tearing Down Connolly’s Seafood to Build the Columbus Center
Out-of-town guests frequently want a taste of Baltimore cuisine, and I can think of no worse place to take them than Pratt Street downtown. Oddly enough, there was a time when it was the place for seafood.
Waterfront crab houses once lined the shore, but Connolly’s Seafood, the last of the Inner Harbor crab emporiums, was squeezed out in the early ‘90s, and flattened by a wrecking ball.
Now your hungry visitor can choose from The Cheesecake Factory—one of 70 locations. Or the Hard Rock Cafe—there are 80 of those in the world. Or Fuddruckers—one of a mind-blowing 600 restaurants. So much for local flavor.
Worse than the loss of Connolly’s, though, is what took its place. The Columbus Center is an honest-to-God boondoggle—the amount of money that continues to get funneled into it is staggering. Taxpayers foot the bill for the $700,000-a-year rent, for the University of Maryland’s Marine Biotechnology Research Center. But that’s pennies compared to the failed Hall of Exploration on the building’s west side. It cost a cool $147 million to build, and closed after seven months, having attracted only 70,000 visitors. That means that in order to break even, one admission ticket would have been $2,100, with no discounts for children or senior citizens. At one point, it was vacant for four years, and upkeep alone was $1.2 million.
According to the biotechnology center’s mission statement, “Research will help us improve our lives and find new food sources.”
That’s the best news I’ve heard in ages. They can start by looking for Connolly’s.
Letting Davey Johnson Go as Manager of the Orioles
It was Oct. 16, 1983. I was at a party somewhere in West Baltimore. Everyone was jumping up and down, screaming and yelling. The Orioles had moments before won the World Series, but I sat in the corner of the room, overcome with a sense of dread. I was living in a city with a championship baseball team, and somehow I knew if I wanted to see another, I’d have to leave town.
The next season, no team was going to get by Detroit in the East, and they eventually took the pennant and the Series. The Orioles started to slide. After a few managerial shuffles, crowd-pleasing Earl Weaver was brought in and promptly managed the O’s into last place. Two years later, sentimental favorites Cal Ripken Sr. and Frank Robinson would combine their talents to guide the team to a record of 54 wins, 107 losses. Last place was clinched once again. After that, the Orioles entered a seven-year miasma of unremarkable coaching and finishes.
Then, out of the mist rode Davey Johnson. He was brash and arrogant, but was reluctantly hired by owner Peter Angelos—who was also brash and arrogant—to manage the team. The two were born to dislike each other, and rarely spoke. But Johnson was something fans hadn’t seen in a long time—a winner. In 1996, he steered the Orioles to a wild-card berth, and in 1997 won the division. Johnson’s winning ways served only to incense Angelos, and they nipped at each other like high school girls—sorry, my mistake, junior high school girls.
This behavior, now charmingly referred to as “The Feud,” reached a crescendo in November of 1997. Johnson, the winningest active manager at the time with two consecutive AL Championship Series appearances under his belt, was certain he was about to be fired for fining Roberto Alomar $10,500. He faxed (remember faxes?) his resignation to Angelos, and Angelos faxed back his acceptance. Two hours later, just for comedy relief, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America named Johnson Manager of the Year.
The Orioles have since returned to their losing ways. Managers come and go. And my Samsonite suitcase, packed since 1983, continues to mock me.
Tearing Down Memorial Stadium
This might be the granddaddy of them all—an amazingly stupid move. Memorial Stadium, once Baltimore professional sports’ most hallowed ground, became a legislative hot potato after the pro teams moved downtown. On one side, neighborhood and church groups, all eager to test their political might. On the other, preservationists, hoping to transform the site both economically and architecturally. And in the middle, 30 acres of prime Baltimore real estate just waiting for the right offer.
In order to assure the greatest return monetarily, and maximize the benefit to the public, both city and state officials had to think creatively, and imagine the extraordinary potential of the site. In other words, the preservationists were doomed. Meaningful, taxable reuse was derailed almost from the beginning. Politicians looked at the project not as an economic development issue, but rather as a neighborhood issue. And the neighborhood certainly had issues. Area residents didn’t want anything put there that would create noise and traffic. What could create more noise and traffic than a stadium, no one ever said. And just to make sure it was never used for sporting events again, the Maryland Stadium Authority authorized demolition at $5.4 million. Legal wrangling stopped the destruction once or twice, but to no avail. Only the sight of the faade standing alone on the barren landscape prompted the public to realize what chance had been squandered.
Eventually the rest of the structure came down as well. Soon will rise the most tepid, mediocre, under-funded, non-revenue producing development ever conceived in Baltimore. No one wants to come out against senior housing. No one wants to come out against a YMCA. But to build them where such great things were possible is simply irresponsible. Memorial Stadium has vanished. But in its place another memorial stands … to missed opportunity.