For Baltimore's Superblock, can the future rival past glory?

Looking at the Superblock's future, while recalling its past glory.

I left the Everyman Theatre on Fayette Street recently and spent some time investigating its once-remarkable neighborhood.

I've given up predicting its future — this formerly thriving section of downtown has defied conventional thinking.

I once assumed, wrongly, that the massive physical changes sweeping adjacent parts of Baltimore would reshape this area where years ago we came to shop and see movies.

I say this because two buildings, the Commercial Credit on St. Paul Place and the U.S. Appraisers Stores at Gay and Lombard streets, have been purchased for apartment conversion. They are part of a larger movement to make over downtown commercial areas into a residential neighborhood.

Several weeks ago, the city announced it would try again to sell what it calls the Superblock — a curious term, given that it has been anything but superior in recent years.

I would venture the Superblock would be hard to recognize by those who shopped there years ago. The blocks along Lexington Street south to Fayette and along Howard were once a beloved Baltimore destination. Today, the Superblock consists of vacant, deteriorated commercial properties.

Its descent into a pockmarked empty street is one of city's more depressing sagas.

Yet the block also contains excellent buildings designed by noted Baltimore architects. Both the old Julius Gutman Co. at Lexington and Park, and Read's at Howard and Lexington, were the work of architects Smith & May, who also gave Baltimore 10 Light Street, the Art Deco tower recently converted into apartments.

Gutman and Read's are bookends on a block that also contains notable 1920s facades. There is a fine architectural harmony and continuity here; I can't help thinking restoration technology could work miracles with these beat-up facades.

Making over Lexington Street into apartments is not far-fetched. For more than a decade, there have been apartments at the old Hecht Co. and at the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. building. Yet the blocks between these two nicely repurposed buildings have remained an eyesore too long.

I take this neighborhood plight personally and emotionally. I began visiting Lexington Street as a child, about age 5. Coming out of the home cocoon, I encountered a Lexington Street that seemed like Baltimore's cosmopolitan meeting place.

Races mixed on the street — and in the case of the then-newly desegregated lunch counter at Read's, blacks and whites were sitting in the same venue. Five years later, the once strictly segregated department stores opened their tearooms and counters and began employing African-American sales associates.

In the past decade, Baltimore scored two big wins in this area with the reopening of the Hippodrome and the Everyman theaters. In the 1950s, I had seen widescreen films and stood on the crowded Fayette Street corner for the dependable No. 8 streetcar as it transported theater balcony patrons to their destinations. This week, both the old theaters were packed once again.

So it can be done. Part of my gloominess and eroding patience, I suppose, has to do with a knowledge of the crowds that can be associated with a big-city American downtown.

A 1920 article in The Baltimore Sun tells the story of this neighborhood, the place we call the Superblock.

The article tells how the Police Department posted four officers to make a head count at the crossroads of Howard and Lexington streets. One stood at Read's, another at the Hochschild-Kohn department store, a third at Stewart's and the fourth at what was then the Leader store (later the Hecht. Co.).

They were supplied with mechanical counting devices, and in an eight-hour span — on a wet day — the four officers counted 93,466 persons passing. It was the Saturday immediately after Thanksgiving. The story noted that many shoppers had been to Lexington Market.

The city's population back then was about 734,000. If all those bustling shoppers on that day were Baltimore residents, that means about one in eight city dwellers crossed that path.

I am not suggesting there will ever be a return to 1920 — or even to the time I saw "The Sound of Music" at Lexington and Park.

Then again, I never thought I would patronize a Four Seasons Hotel, with restaurants and pool, on the site of an old lumber yard in Harbor East.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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