THE city's newest vision for downtown Baltimore calls for Charles Street -- that famous artery running through the city's history -- to be made two-way (at least from downtown to the Hopkins campus). The last time there was so visible and dramatic a change in street direction was in 1954. There are some lessons to be learned.
The first of two street dramas that year occurred in the early morning of July 18, 1954. Henry Barnes, the traffic commissioner, would stage what today would be called the mother of all reversals of street direction. Before dawn that morning, Calvert Street would become one-way northbound and St. Paul Street would become one-way southbound.
The operation started at 12:30 a.m., and though Barnes had it planned in a way that would make Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf proud, Edward Kahoe, then coordinator of transit and traffic, remembered it as turning out somewhat differently. "Everything went crazy that night. We had to flag down cars speeding south down Calvert that had already been designated as one-way north. We towed away dozens of cars that were, suddenly, with the new rules in effect, parked illegally. It was wild."
Then Barnes announced that on Sept. 14, 1954, Charles Street, then two-way (from downtown to 29th), would switch to one-way north. The change was scheduled for 2:30 a.m. -- and the operation would turn out to be one of confusion, chaos and comedy.
What happened was that Barnes announced that motorists should follow the newly visible directional signs. Promptly at 2:30, Barnes and crew started to uncover the previously posted and covered signs -- but Barnes failed to take into account the couple of hours or so it took to get all the signs along the whole route uncovered. And in those few hours all hell broke loose.
Some motorists were speeding north on Charles in the left lane, believing (correctly) the street to be one-way north -- only to encounter cars heading toward them in the same lane.
Barnes himself joined the fracas, trying to warn innocent motorists. He shouted at one, "We're not northbound until the arrows change!" One motorist responded, "Who are you? Why don't you learn something about this town?"
All that was in 1954. Now it is 1991, and the city fathers and mothers are planning to make Charles Street two-way.