From the door of his clothing shop, Lew Goldstein watched a light rain splash on the metal grates of the vacant buildings across the street and waited for a customer to push her way
past the panhandlers.
Although it was a weekday lunchtime, business was extremely slow at the Oldtown Mall. The brick-paved pedestrian mall in East Baltimore, once a gleaming showcase for urban renewal, was deserted except for the neighborhood regulars.
The glass-globed street lights flicker, the clock is broken, and planters are littered with broken beer bottles. Three of the shops that were carefully restored after the riots in 1968 have fallen into disrepair.
"We've seen better days," says Mr. Goldstein, whose grandfather built the women's clothing shop at the corner of the Belair Market in 1918.
But he and other merchants believe change is on the horizon. They're working with the city's Department of Housing and Community Development to develop a strategic plan to revitalize the languishing mall once again.
Eventually, the merchants hope, the city will tear down the three abandoned, rat-infested buildings in the first block of the mall and recruit a supermarket to replace them.
They also want to remove the graffiti-scarred benches, spruce up the mall's appearance and encourage a bank to open a branch. Some 70 business establishments continue to draw customers, and despite the mall's appearance, few vacancies are apparent among the storefronts.
The brick sidewalk is still neatly swept. But it's empty of the shoppers who came in droves after the merchants raised nearly $2 million in the early 1970s and rebuilt the street from the ashes of the riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The city and federal government spent another $2.5 million to revitalize the shops along the three blocks of Gay Street that became the mall.
"In our heyday, we were doing great. We had people from as far away as California and overseas coming here," Mr. Goldstein says.
Urban planners from across the country journeyed to the Oldtown Mall to take notes on how to salvage their own riot-ravaged neighborhoods. Business flourished for a while as the city built a modern high-rise for the elderly and residents moved back to nearby Stirling Street, a long block of aging
rowhouses that was rehabilitated by homesteaders.
In 1979, the Oldtown shops were damaged again, this time by looting after a blizzard. The entire first floor of Kaufman's department store, the largest shop on the mall, was emptied. But the merchants swept up the broken glass and started over.
It wasn't until the late 1980s that the mall was saddled with the sluggish sales and image of decline that plague many inner-city pedestrian strips across the nation.
Shoppers today complain that the mall is inconvenient and unsafe. But merchants say the crime problem is no worse than in other parts of the city. Increasingly, residents of the nearby public housing communities are likely to take a bus to other malls, even as far away as the Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore.
The merchants blame many of their problems on neglect by the city. Code violations in what is an urban renewal district have not been enforced for years, they contend.
"You can see the deterioration. They don't enforce the standards," says Gerald Jeffein, owner of Kaufman's.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says the city used to get enough money from the federal government to have staff deal with the business community. But federal budget cuts have eliminated the support.
L "I've heard the complaints, and I understand them," he said.
Part of the mall's problem is that the surrounding neighborhood has become significantly poorer over the past decade, most merchants agree. Another part is that shoppers are worried about drug dealing, petty thievery and sporadic violence.
"What they need is a security guard," says Yvonne Rice, who was shopping last week with her children and her friend, Kim Demory. Ms. Demory says she keeps a tight hand on her purse. "The only time a woman comes shopping here is with a man or a lot of friends."
A city police officer patrols the three-block mall and meets frequently with the merchants. But the mall's appearance alone makes many shoppers feel unsafe.
"I find there's a great need for improvement. The stores all need to be renovated, and they need to get rid of the panhandlers," says Tarrian Ridgley, a clerk at the Diplomat Shop, a men's clothing shop.
The problems are common among pedestrian malls, says Dolores Palma, president of Hyett Palma, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., that studied 200 older business districts.
The threat of suburban malls prompted many downtown shopping districts to close their streets to traffic in the 1970s.
A few pedestrian malls, especially those in the heart of downtown tourist and business areas, have been successful. But the majority are struggling like Oldtown, where a drug store and Provident Bank branch have closed in the last several years.
Cities from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Santa Monica, Calif., have responded by reopening part or all of their pedestrian malls to traffic. Milt Rosenbaum, owner of Hosiery World at 211 W. Saratoga St., wants Baltimore to follow suit on Howard Street, which is now a light-rail "transit mall," and on the Lexington Street pedestrian mall.
But shop owners at Oldtown Mall have mixed feelings about reopening the street.
Stanley Zerden, a third-generation clothier, believes that allowing buses into the mall would bring more customers. But Seymour Farbman, owner of the Diplomat Shop and president of the merchants association, says he'd rather see some simple improvements by the city.
"If we could get this fixed up again," he says, "I think it would help a lot of the stores that are still struggling through the recession."