Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Baltimore: When exactly were things better?

At a time when a significant amount of Americans likes to make "America Great Again" one has to wonder to which time the clock should be turned back to. The sentiment that there have been better times than the presence is strong even among liberals and it is often applied to Baltimore as well.

When we still had nearly a million people, when Pennsylvania Avenue was flourishing, when people still cared for each other in the community, when Baltimore still had streetcars running in every block; there is no shortage of nostalgic rear-view mirror longings.

This year is my 30th year in Baltimore, just long enough to look back some distance and explore, if things were really better in the past. At least the recent past going back to 1986 when I started by work in this city.

This will be a multi-part look-back in no particular order meant as light summer reading. I will try as best as I can not to slip into the typical view through the aging eyes of one who confuses the vigor of the younger self and the heroic deeds done as a younger man with the condition of society at the time.
Freight train on Boston Street 1987 (American Can in the background)

Part 1: Discovering the Canton Waterfront

In the summer of 1986 I had been hired by the architecture firm then called Cho, Wilks and Benn (sign in the storefront: "Concerned Architecture") to assist in the phase two of the Aquarium for which the architects had won a design competition. But the Aquarium folks went with the second prize winner, instead and so in October I was redirected to the roof of a four story can decorating factory whose conversion to loft type apartments was just about to be finished.

To get there one had to navigate behind a lumberyard that sat where now Harbor East is, drive through a rather sleepy Fells Point and then navigate Boston Street lined with abandonment and empty lots, an industrial track going down the middle of the street with the occasional freight engine bearing down on you. Cobble stone, potholes, tracks: an SUV would have been useful, but that term hadn't been coined yet and the only truck that people drove at that time were pick-ups with hard tops on back. The four story Tindeco Wharf loft type building was topped by a rusting water tank at its northwest corner.
Tindeco and what used to be a Power Plant in front of it

The view from the roof was exceptional in all directions. But the oil tanks, abandoned cranes and dilapidated piers so close by were somewhat alarming. Industrial chic had not entered the vocabulary yet either, let alone become a mainstream style and there was very much the question: Would people come out here just because there was water?

The only new investment in sight were about three acres of new townhomes and the Anchorage tower just finishing up, a development bringing a suburban touch to the city. The development was reportedly the brainchild of then Mayor William Donald Schaefer who had convinced a Louis Grasmick to build there on what would later be dubbed the "gold coast". Bill Struever, another guy who had come to Baltimore in a run-down pick up truck (remember the mayoral election?), took Schaefer's idea a few notches further: Adaptive reuse, something that had happened already in SoHo, a thing that was talked about in London and Rotterdam and that had been done in Baltimore only once, at the Sailcloth factory in Ridgely's Delight.
Loft living with 15' ceilings

The Canton row-houses were still the homes of the working class. The set-up, tall stuff along the waterfront cutting off the community had been really part of the industrial DNA of the City with large scale industrial uses ringing the Inner Harbor all around. But with the Anchorage bringing new income level people directly to the water's edge, the seed for a narrative of class and gentrification was already planted. When it came to the redevelopment of the American Can Company a few years later, that topic would become front and center. (to be continued).

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA