Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Ideas how to draw people to Baltimore during COVID

The other day I placed two photos showing a boarded Visitors center and an empty promenade side by side with the caption "Baltimore isn't open for visitors and nobody is coming either". I caught a lot of flak for that. Baltimorean's are quick to defend their city, no matter the usual griping. That's a good thing. This article tries to develop some thoughts what could be done safely in Baltimore while highlighting the City's many assets.

Here a detailed Facebook comment that contains such a good list of suggestions that I repeat it here in full length:
the post that received the push-back
The Inner Harbor is beautiful in many ways without the crowds and the open commercial establishments while taking a leisurely walk around the area, but Baltimore City is more than the Inner Harbor just look around you at the wonderful museums, the different style of architecture that exists in the city and one moment you can be in France, another Germany, another the Netherlands and the all typical American representing the groups of individuals who live and lived here. A walk around the Walters looking at the Bayre Sculptures is a trip to France and the Anderson building just north of the sculptures is absolutely amazing. Lexington Market is now open and a treat to go and visit and try some typical Baltimore food. A visit to Poe's grave is a treat to see and learn of the history, as well as trip to the Hopkins campus, the Loyola campus so you don't just have to judge the city on the Inner Harbor when there is so much more to see in this beautiful city of ours. We all need exercise and with our masks on we can walk around and marvel at the sights unfold from one street to another. (Christian Wilson, a born Bostonian)
While it is true that Baltimore has many dormant treasures that wait for discovery, passively waiting for people doing the discovering may not be enough to avert economic calamity. I tried to establish some context for my post by observing how many visitor repelling things come together at the Inner Harbor:  the "visitor center closed, the
Construction at Rash Field, Constellation Pier and Visitor Center
pavilions decimated, Rash Field closed, the Constellation docking place closed, the water taxi limping on minimal or no service, Barnes&Noble to be closed and no Conventions, no book festival, no Light City, and empty hotels make it hard to see how the area can be attractive. But that drew only more criticism: After somebody drew the scary comparison to San Francisco "according to friends who live in San Francisco, it's more dead than Baltimore right now". Facebook friend  Vickie Gray added:
Yes, and I don't see how posts like this are helpful. We all know Baltimore is taking a beating from COVID and other events. I and others frequently find ourselves defending our choice to live in the city. I enjoy Klaus' writing and perspective very much but would love to see less doom and gloom and more objective analysis. Articulate, thoughtful people can do a lot to lift the mood of our city and our people. And it's a beautiful September day. I am thankful to live here.
The  honey her post included made the criticism sting even more. True, constructive ideas would help. Especially when so many venues, restaurants, artists and retailers fight for survival. 

Another Facebook comment was another ode to the promenade:
Water taxi landing in Locust Point
I walk the promenade most days, often 5 miles round trip. It is usually very lively and over the weekends packed. Whenever I am feeling down about our great city all I need to do is walk. It is a constant source of positivity. The extent to which the promenade has grown as a place for recreation in the face of covid is extraordinary. Locals, visitors, strollers, scooters, walkers, joggers, as well as kayakers, stand up paddle boards- and now turtles, blue crabs, osprey, heron etc etc in abundance. Klaus- the glass is way more than half full. Add some rose color to your lenses. (Bill Pencek).
Another Facebook friend noted:
Glass half empty is Harbor Place, B&N......Glass more than half full is development has encircled the harbor for miles in both directions from Silo Point /Anthem House to Brewers Hill with multiple new projects every year making a better urban experience and providing many jobs during construction and after.

Couldn't Light City be Covid themed and safe?
This is all true, yet I feel that after the first shock of COVID Baltimore could be a bit more proactive in playing its assets up. BOPA's webpage lists only what is NOT happening. Visit Baltimore's webpage still list the long gone restaurant Week as an attraction and otherwise promotes virtual visits as if the entire city was still in lock-down.

Thinking about how to make Baltimore attractive through COVID safe offerings isn't just about tourism. It is also about allowing residents to come out of their isolation and counter the idea that cities are inherently unsafe places in a pandemic. It is about saving small local businesses from extinction. And by saving businesses and venues from going bust, it is also saving Baltimore's budget from sinking into an abyss. The DOT installed Slow Streets and the many new "parklets" on city streets are a great start.

Much what works in small towns and suburbs can work inside a bigger city as well. So here some additional thoughts:

  • Certainly visitors that want to go to the visitor center should be greeted by a sign that indicates where information can be had while the center gets its makeover. 
  • Certainly the many new pop-up outdoor dining spaces could be highlighted. With so many outdoor spaces created on parking lots and street space, dining in Baltimore can be safe and enjoyable and should be promoted as a new attraction.
  • Certainly the artists suffering from closed galleries, museums and performances could be invited to help put together COVID-safe cultural events.  Light City Baltimore under Corona conditions could be much more than a copy of what light shows have done elsewhere.
  • For example, instead of just cancelling Artscape and Light City wouldn't it have been exciting to have a call for ideas for safe and appropriate versions of these events under COVID? 
  • The BSO, in trouble before COVID  had toured unusual venues such as the Baltimore Museum of Industry and the New Psalmist Church. With COVID, couldn't that idea be expanded to outdoor concerts in public spaces? Could be the example for the ballet, theaters and art to use the great outdoors as long as outdoor activity is still possible?
  • Bengies, an old style drive in movie theater in Baltimore County was sold out during a recent showing. Couldn't temporary drive in movie shows be installed at Mondawmin Mall or the stadium parking lots? 
    Sandlot at HarborPoint is at least as safe as Ocean City 
Staycation is what most people do. Parks and beaches have drawn so many people that the trip back over the Bay Bridge on Labor Day took hours of wait in an eight mile back-up. Baltimore has its own beach, Sandlot at HarborPoint. Its website doesn't mention COVID with a single word. Couldn't Baltimore advertise its beautiful parks that compared to Central Park in New York languish most of the year. A sculpture exhibit in Druid Park? The Zoo had the right idea with a drive-through promotional event, couldn't something like that be expanded to the entire park, maybe eventually without the car as extended PPE? What about all the food trucks that certainly also suffer from the lack of people downtown and the cancelled events? Why couldn't a food truck event in Druid Park, Leakin Park or in the parking lot of the M&T Stadium be made safe? Aren't food trucks extremely adaptable to the conditions under the pandemic? 
Winands Meadow at Leakin Park: Inviting but empty

Black Lives matter demonstrations and associated street art and murals have shown that the streets can be taken back from cars and the lock-down alike without creating dangerous virus hot-spots and that outdoor gatherings in the city can be organized safely.

Finally, the Promenade that started this article. Five full miles around the Inner Harbor are, in my opinion, way more interesting than the boardwalk in Ocean City. Why not advertise it and bring food-trucks, outdoor music and buskers to it in a coordinated big effort to draw visitors and make it safe at the same time?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
The carousel taken away from the Inner Harbor has built in social distancing

Center Plaza in downtown has built in social distancing 

Food trucks can be safe during COVID

McKeldin Plaza has built in social distancing

New outdoor eating opportunity, Harbor East

New outdoor eating opportunity, Fells Point

New outdoor eating opportunity, Fells Point

Miles of  new "slow streets": Opportunities for outdoor activities

New outdoor eating opportunities Federal Hill

Safe baseball practice: Locust point

View of downtown from Carroll Park
Curtis Bay Park: Inviting Social distancing events 

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