Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plan to beautify the approaches to Baltimore for visitors arriving by rail may seem like a triumph of style over substance in efforts to revitalize the city's image. But first impressions really do count, and the mayor is right that it doesn't have to be the depressing landscape of boarded-up houses and trash-strewn yards that greets rail passengers today. In the grand scheme of things, sprucing up the route along which travelers pass as they enter the city won't by itself transform Baltimore's fortunes. But it's a modest step toward improving visitors' initial perception of the city, and that certainly can't hurt.
For years university officials and business leaders have complained that the views from Amtrak trains approaching and departing Penn Station offer a harsh and unflattering introduction to Baltimore. Travelers arriving from the north are met with a despairing vision of urban decay as they roll through some of the poorest neighborhoods of East Baltimore, while those approaching from the south witness only the detritus of industrial decline before being plunged into the gloom of a century-old tunnel. In neither direction do visitors see any evidence of the city's revival or the vibrant neighborhoods springing up downtown, along the waterfront or even around the station.
Nor is that station itself much to look at, despite its elegant 19th-century Beaux Art architecture and commanding location between Charles and St. Paul Streets north of Mount Royal Avenue. Penn Station has yet to undergo the kind of up-to-date refurbishing that charms passengers arriving in Washington's Union Station, with its lively variety of restaurants, coffee shops and clothing boutiques. Ms. Rawlings-Blake wants to begin sprucing up the terminal as part of the city's overall master plan to meet future transportation needs, starting with free Wi-fi inside the building and the installation of bike racks and colorful tables and chairs on the plaza out front.
But the heart of the plan involves tearing down dozens of dilapidated, vacant homes visible from the tracks coming into the city and replacing them with green spaces and newly renovated housing. City workers will start demolishing some of the worst eyesores along the 2400 block of East Eager Street this fall and rehab other nearby dwellings under the mayor's "Vacants to Values" program. Ms. Rawlings-Blake recently unveiled a large sign visible from the tracks with the word "Baltimore" written on it in bold letters and an LED-screen touting the city's cultural and sports highlights — a nod to the vitality of city life meant to catch visitors' eye and bring new energy to the area.
Unsurprisingly, some have questioned whether the changes being contemplated are anything more than cosmetic because they don't address the root problems of poverty, unemployment, crime and lack of opportunity that have plagued Baltimore for decades — problems, moreover, that are not going to instantly disappear no matter how pretty a face the mayor puts on them.
Yet people used to make the same argument about the Inner Harbor and spoke of "the rot beneath the glitter" that betrayed nearly every effort transform outsiders' perceptions of the city. Nevertheless, the harbor today remains the single most powerful symbol of the city's revitalization, and it continues to attract millions of visitors every year while projecting a more positive image of Baltimore despite all the problems that remain.
If this were the entirety of the mayor's plan to move Baltimore forward, the critics would have a point. But it's not. What this amounts to is a modest prioritization of ongoing efforts to address blight — and one that will benefit not just those looking out from train windows but also those who live in the neighborhoods on the other side.
As in so many other aspects of life, it generally pays to put your best foot forward even if you have holes in the bottoms of your shoes. If modest investments in beautifying the landscape along the approaches to Baltimore help rail passengers realize that the city's efforts to transform itself are continuing apace, that can only help attract new business, residents and investment.
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