Charles Duff has written a book that preserves the way he speaks, like a teacher or philosopher. Reading it, you feel as if he were in the room, lecturing on his favorite topic, how cities developed.
In “The North Atlantic Cities,” Duff describes Baltimore as a “pleasant Anglo-Dutch mixture of three story Victorian row houses and 20th Century high rise apartments.” It is not a short book, and Duff speaks engagingly.
A Baltimore native, he grew up in Mount Washington on Wexford Road and later on Lombardy Place off Northern Parkway in North Roland Park. Sometime in the mid-1970s he moved to Federal Hill and discovered rowhouse living. He’s been a convert ever since. He later lived on Hollins Street near Poppleton and now resides on Lanvale Street in Bolton Hill.
He loves cities, Glasgow, Delft and Dublin, say, and even more likes to visit them. He speaks of Hampstead Garden Suburb (North London) as he does Highlandtown. He is full of insights, and it’s amazing that he has been able to compress so many of them within these pages. He compares and contrasts like an art historian leading a double-decker bus tour.
Duff, the president of Jubilee Baltimore, leads an organization that has created and restored affordable and market-rate housing units in Butchers Hill, Mount Vernon and Station North. His office is in the old WFBR radio studio within the Centre Theatre on North Avenue, one of the commercial structures his group saved. The Centre building is warren of creative uses, with spaces shared by Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Jewelry Center and the Maryland Institute College of Art.
He loves to analyze and often sounds like a philosopher assigned to teach city planning. In his book, he makes the case that certain cities owe their development style to 17th-century Netherlands, with its orderly and pleasant (and straight) canals running through urban centers.
“These are the world’s first realistic cities. ... The buildings of Dutch cities are satisfied and satisfying, self confident without pride, dignified without pretense, individual without offense,” Duff writes.
Accordingly, his book describes places from Amsterdam to Washington, D.C.
Duff, ever the teacher, makes several cautionary points, but his most persuasive concerns the environment and the rowhouse. Rowhouses share party walls and are easier to heat. People live closer together and can made better use of public transportation.
“Although urban blight is shocking and obvious in many American cities, it is not actually America’s biggest physical development problem. It is automotive sprawl,” he writes.
Although Duff owns a car, he has feelings about the automobile and the city. “Every city lost its middle class in the age of the automobile," he said the other day.
"A few years ago I wanted to understand how big a problem sprawl was,” he said, explaining that he visited Harford County’s planning department, where he once worked, and asked to see plans of typical new neighborhoods.
“The average house took up three-quarters of an acre,” he wrote. “If everyone in Metropolitan Baltimore lived on three-quarter acre lots, Metropolitan Baltimore would run from the Susquehanna to south of Annapolis and as far west as the White House. There would be no room for Washington, D.C.”
Duff champions rowhouse living in a setting of streets where apartment houses are located on the corners or on broad avenues.
In addition to the blocks of rowhouses in Union Square and Butchers Hill, he praises the compact, energy-efficient and well-designed places such as Tuscany-Canterbury, Ednor Gardens and Wickford Road, where an architecturally pleasant housing stock creates a coherent neighborhood.
In his estimation, places like Rodgers Forge and Academy Heights are two of greatest achievements American builders did after World War II.