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The value of vacants [Commentary]

The city is paying for a series of temporary murals to be painted across vacant buildings throughout Baltimore — a momentary beautification effort that will last only until the former homes are town down.

The "Love Letters to Baltimore" project by artist Stephen Powers (which so far consists of the words "Forever together" and "I am here because it's home" in giant letters along the fronts of row homes on East Eager Street and the side of a building on North Milton, respectively) has drawn positive attention to what many have for years considered a mere eyesore.

But what if the vacant homes themselves have value? What if they're as thought-provoking as a work of art?

Take a ride up the 1700 block of Etting Street, walk along Gay Street between Preston and Biddle, or stand gazing at the corner of North Mount and West Franklin streets. These are a few of the myriad examples of the vast tracts of vacant row houses that dot the Baltimore landscape. Many have written about the problem of these vacants. More have discussed it over dinner tables and atop marble steps.

The argument almost always comes down to a stark choice and a pronounced difference of opinion on the matter: Should we tear them all down and start anew with fresh, reparceled lots, or should we rehabilitate them and focus our efforts on rendering them habitable for future families of city dwellers?

Baltimore has about 30,000 vacant buildings. The city claims they lead to lower property values and lower tax and real estate revenue, along with increased crime from squatters, vandals and looters. They're used as drug and stash houses, and The Sun has reported that a 13-year-old girl was raped in one.

They're often falling apart, with boarded windows and crumbling steps and lined along empty streets — a shell of the home that once housed a family. But they are not without aesthetic power, and perhaps because of that, some should be preserved.

What happens when we ponder what once was instead of shaking our heads about what should be?

Concerning the ruins of Ancient Rome, the 19th Century English critic John Ruskin once wrote "The greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity."

He was reflecting on the sublimity of experiencing a ruin first-hand, of the chill of standing in a haunted place, surrounded by the memories of those who came before. Sometimes I imagine what one of these vacant blocks would have been like, say, 50 years ago. Children would have been running about. Mothers would have been leaning from opened windows. Neighbors would have been conversing on stoops. The sights and sounds of play and work and socializing would have been everywhere.

These streets are empty now, but the scenes I just described are concrete memories for so many older Baltimoreans. The state of their former homes represents real age and decay inflicted on a city scape by the passage of time. Standing among them, we can reflect more clearly on our own mortality.

Nowhere else can one get as powerful a feel for the living past than among these crumbling monuments to Baltimore's collective memory. To someone who walks among them for the first time, these buildings project an otherworldly feel that stimulates the imagination. I've often compared it to the sense one gets when wandering through the open, quiet, yet lived-in spaces of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona or Nanih Waiya in Mississippi. These Native American gathering spots are similarly emptied, but spiritually full, with the hint of tragedy that impels us to never forget.

No one can ignore the injustices that have plagued our city for generations. Few can discount the need for affordable housing and safe, livable neighborhoods. With the proper combination of political will and direction, these problems can be solved.

The ghosts of so many of Baltimore's neighborhoods stand silent among us, stimulating our imaginations. Let us walk in these quiet places, and keep some of them around us, as is, so that we can have their cacophonous voices with us as we create a Baltimore with the solid sense of place and identity that comes from never leaving our ancestors behind.

Think Pompeii, instead of Detroit.

M.E. Tobin is a writer living in Baltimore. His email is m.tobin@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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