I noticed a moving truck outside the old St. Alphonsus parochial school in the west side of downtown Baltimore on Saratoga Street. Someone was moving into an apartment in this Victorian building, once home to a school that made a a valiant attempt to remain open, The school closed a while back, and the building is now a residence.
The same day, a little more than a block away, I spotted a banner headed by the numerals "401" and the slogan, "Baltimore's fastest growing neighborhood isn't where you think it is." The 401 refers to a 2010 census tract defined as Paca Street on the west, Pratt Street on the south, Franklin Street on the north, and President Street and Interstate 83 on the east.
It has 4,000 residents and has seen a 130 percent growth in population the past 10 years. The census showed that many are young workers, new to Baltimore. Many list their ethnicities as Asian and African-American. Some 43 percent identify themselves as white. Many work at the University of Maryland or Mercy Medical Center.
In a city that suffered depressing population declines in neighborhoods such as Oldtown, Middle East, Park Heights, Irvington and Westport, a population gain is something to toast.
This new downtown is a nameless neighborhood, and a growing one. The problem is that we native Baltimoreans haven't caught up to the notion of living right downtown. Our comfort level is all about our cozy rowhouses in what we think of as proper residential neighborhoods, or maybe some of the tony new apartment towers in Harbor East.
I admit I need to catch up with reality. All the people I see walking to the old Standard Oil Building on St. Paul Place or the old Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s Lexington Street headquarters at quitting time are not office workers. They are residents. Some of the buildings have waiting lists; the rents are not Baltimore-cheap.
Consider another transition: The once-staid old Baltimore & Ohio Building, renovated as the Hotel Monaco, was the hostelry where both Bruce Springsteen and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani stayed on visits.
The 401 sign is a promotion of the Downtown Partnership, the group that does everything from putting a new sculpture in the Hopkins Place fountain to promoting the city's core for business and living.
I spoke with its director, Kirby Fowler, and Michael Evitts, his vice president. They explained that Baltimore began a subtle but continuing transition more than 30 years ago, when a bunch of old garment-manufacturing buildings were converted to 1970s loft apartments on Paca Street near the University of Maryland. Slowly, the change to housing conversions moved on to places like the old Hecht Co. department store and leapfrogged east to the Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette. New construction added other units, and Baltimore now has an established and growing residential downtown.
"People's sense of reality hasn't caught up with actual reality," said Evitts as he discussed how the exteriors of the former office buildings still look like office buildings but are doing a kind of reverse duty: empty during the day and filled at night.
The residents are often young professionals starting out, rejecting living with what they grew up with, seeking the opportunity of the city and its dramatic architecture.
And where is it going? For starters, they'd like to see the area get a name other than a dreary moniker like Central Business District. Saying you "live downtown" doesn't work well either. Downtown seems to be anything from Seton Hill to Fells Point.
Fowler also sees three key residential projects as strongly reinforcing the area's residential future. He points to the so-called Superblock at Howard and Lexington; the Mechanic Theatre; and 10 Light Street, the 1929 Bank of America building we Baltimoreans call by all sorts of names, including Baltimore Trust, O'Sullivan or Mathieson.
Fowler predicts that 10 Light Street will become "the most iconic apartment building in downtown Baltimore."
Speaking of its Art Deco facade, he said, "10 Light has tremendous skin and great bones. I am positive something wonderful will happen with it."