Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Good ideas from elsewhere: Celebrate city history

With all the talk about learning from history, a city with a, by US standards, long and rich history should take a hard look when, where and how history can be used to strengthen the city.
Existing downtown pedestrian wayfinding

The West Baltimore Community of Marble Hill has a
few street pole signs
Strength can come from information, pride, education and from a celebration of diversity. It turns out, Baltimore has a lot of history in the shape of people, culture, artifacts and historic landmarks that are not well known, in need of discovery, or rest in some sort of eternal state of slumber.

Time and again I have heard people exclaim "I had no idea this existed here" when they stumbled over historic buildings, parks, monuments, fountains and the like as part of guided tours, rides or hikes.

Eli Pousson at Baltimore Heritage is writing tirelessly against this forgetfulness. In recent months he blogged about the Orianda House in Leakin Park, the Patterson Park Pagoda, about Jonestown, the Five and Dime historic district.

Who really knows that Baltimore has an entire series of beautiful West Baltimore squares, urban parks surrounded by beautiful buildings that can rival Savanna's famous squares? Check out Union Square (Mencken House), Franklin Square, Harlem Park, Lafayette Square or Perkins Square.
Immigration Museum and many other better and lesser known spaces. Following the usual patterns, especially the history of the poor neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore are often lingering in obscurity in spite of their rich history. In fact, much of West Baltimore is part of the Old West Baltimore designated historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 
Old West Baltimore, a map but few
real life signs

No matter how active groups such as Baltimore Heritage, only a few people will take part in actual guided tours or read the blogs. What could be done to make the rich history more obvious and easy to know for everybody?

This question is especially acute for Baltimore's neighborhoods. Every recent mayor has promised in thee campaign to strengthen neighborhoods and not send all resources downtown. whereas historic treasures in the neighborhoods are hard to find and the designated historic districts are frequently not identifiable except on special maps. There isn't even a basic template for how those districts can display their names.
Baltimore Heritage walk sidewalk marker
Downtown has pretty good sightseeing and historic markers, sign boards and even marked trails (tailored after Boston's better known Freedom Trail

Recently driving through Rochester, NY along the city's extensive Hope cemetery on Mount Hope Avenue, I noticed a long line of banners depicting the numerous famous people buried behind the cemetery wall. This is how I was enticed to turn into the beautiful old cemetery and check out Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony's grave with my wife as the driving force for to see Susan B. Anthony's grave after we had already seen her former residency, one of Rochester's best known historic sites.
Baltimore Greenmount Cemetery

Baltimore certainly has equally beautiful resting places with equally famous historic figures  in them, in many cases probably unknown even to local residents. Among the Baltimore Cemetary, the Old Saint Paul's Cemetery and the Green Mount cemetery the latter is possibly the most historic and architectural. It should be one of the must see local attractions, perhaps more so than the well known Poe grave.
Ybor City, Tampa

Another matter is that Baltimore, presumably the city of neighborhoods, does very little to publicly identify the names of neighborhoods in a uniform, simple to maintain and permanent manner.
London Street sign

London is probably the most well known case of street-signs that give the street name and the name of the borough where the street is located. Many US cities have emulated this, the probably least impressive or informative version is DC's streetnames with the added SW, SE, NW and NE, others have found more telling ways to highlight their local communities. Tampa, for example employs special street signs showing off their Ybor City historic District.

Baltimore didn't shy away from the expense of placing those large green streetname signs overhead at
Austin historic district street sign
intersections that are suburban in nature, catering to fast driving motorists and lacking in esthetics what they offer in functionality. Many cities have customized the standard edition street signs, whether mounted on corner-poles or overhead, for a tasteful locally branded version often with some additional information, such as the name of the neighborhood. Adding the neighborhood name to street signs would be quite useful in Baltimore which calls itself the city of neighborhoods. Historic districts could have brown street name signs.
Existing Baltimore banners

Already in use in many Baltimore neighborhoods are the streetlight pole banners but most of them do only what the streetsigns could do better, provide the name of the community. The banners should do more and boast what is special in the neighborhood,  from the Poe house to the schools Thurgood Marshall visited in Marbel Hill.

The cost of customized street signs and informational banners wouldn't be astronomical and could be deflected in part by sponsorships. The return on investment would be come in the shape of residents that get to know their own city better, area visitors driving to town becoming aware of the extraordinary amount of historic places and landmarks, all assisting in anchoring Baltimore of a place worth living or visiting.

In addition, BOPA should engage with a local IT start-up to created self guided narrative tours available as downloads on mobile devices which would allow getting additional background at each of the historic cultural landmarks.
Not ideal, but still a reference: New York City

The augmentation of physical walking tours outlined with sidewalk markings like in a scavenger hunt by technology that involves GPS, the cloud and the beloved smart phone which already gives us information all day long via calendar, fit-bit apps, transit apps or traffic maps or by simply pointing out nearby restaurants or coffee shops is a cool way to systematically market the City's history.
Montreal historic tours app

The virtual tour in the real city could go beyond history, with the right support any topic of interest could be covered that way This tool would even be better if a city would also offer WiFi and allow users to save Internet fees and roaming charges. Mobile apps as city guides or travel app have been in use for some time but they suffer from lack of local information unless they are fed by really good local sources. Montreal created its own mobile app and a relatively wide reaching WiFi network to boot.

GPSmyCity is already offers some self guided tour options for Baltimore and many other cities but is pretty downtown centered. So does For Baltimore heritage's attempt of online exploration of neighborhood treasures, see here.

A citywide combination of the above physical and online tools would go a long way to stress a positive Baltimore narrative that is based on the strength and cultural diversity of our communities.

It is true that history needs to be preserved and that it is necessary to learn from it. In Baltimore there is plenty of history that can be celebrated without creating new divisions and without using it as a smoke screen for supremacy.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated to fix some text line fragments that Blogger created when inserting images and to add Baltimore Heritage virtual tours.

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