The Sound of Music


Baltimore is no Savannah, a city of magnificen interconnected squares that are a stroller's paradise. But the Monumental City, too, has its share of wonderful public spaces, ranging from historic Mount Vernon Square and Eutaw Place to a whole network of landscaped West Baltimore squares -- Franklin, Union, Lafayette, Harlem. . . Before the beginning of suburbanization, they were veritable oases. Like the city's major parks, they were surrounded by some of the most desirable residential housing.

A central downtown meeting place in those days was Sun Square. Excited throngs gathered there whenever major news was breaking. Important department stores (led by O'Neills) and famous restaurants (Miller Brothers, Oyster Bay) were nearby.

When those landmarks were demolished more than three decades ago to make way for Charles Center, the designers of that pivotal downtown renewal project wanted to create public spaces that would add color and life to the canyons of office towers and high-rise residences. Center Plaza was created between the Baltimore Gas & Electric Building and Fayette Street. The square south of it, between the Morris Mechanic Theater and the Federal Building, became known as Hopkins Plaza.

The plazas were popular gathering places throughout the 1970s. They were the sites of anti-war demonstrations and free jazz concerts featuring artists like Stan Getz and Lionel Hampton. Ethnic festivals competed for summer weekend dates. When the first City Fair was held in 1970, it, too, drew huge crowds to those plazas.

After Harborplace opened in 1980, most people events moved to the Inner Harbor. Charles Center became so deserted at night a skywalk that had linked its two plazas was dismantled.

In the past couple of summers, Charles Center has made a comeback as a venue for nighttime entertainment. Free Thursday night concerts on Hopkins Plaza, featuring mostly reggae and rhythm and blues artists, have become increasingly popular. This year, they will be complemented with jazz and blues concerts that will go on simultaneously at Center Plaza, featuring such names as saxophonist Sonny Fortune (tomorrow), flutist Herbie Mann (May 27) and saxophonist Gary Bartz (June 3). By going downtown Thursday nights between 6:30 and 10 o'clock, Baltimoreans can sample a wide variety of music.

We welcome this new beat to the heart of the city.

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