Shopping districts feel brunt of the city's decline


Shopping districts all over Baltimore seem to be in trouble. Familiar stores disappear. Vacant shops pop up, replaced by second-hand and junk stores, bail bondsmen, furniture rental agencies and check cashing offices.

The depression is evident in the business districts at Liberty Heights Avenue-Garrison Boulevard, Eastern Avenue, Harford Road, Belair Road, Gay Street, North Avenue, 36th Street, Washington Boulevard, Howard Street -- both on Antique Row and on Lexington Street -- and West Baltimore Street.

People who shopped along Eastern Avenue winced when word came last week that their Woolworth's outlet, a fixture since 1923, was closing. But this loss is but one in a line of retail institutions that have dropped out of sight in East Baltimore. The larger stores, the old Epstein's, Lee's, Irvin's and Goldenberg's, had left the street in years gone by. These were the commercial attractions that drew customers to the other shops, businesses and services.

The slump along Highlandtown's Avenue is especially depressing because this neighborhood shopping district remained healthy and robust while others were deteriorating in the 1970s and 1980s. During that time, Highlandtown somehow retained the look of a busy day in the Eisenhower era well into the George Bush days. And it seemed like it would go on forever.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Highlandtown fought back against the forces that were taking business away. The city and neighborhood groups pressed for a sprucing up at Conkling Street and Eastern Avenue. New sidewalks and a memorial clock were installed. So were some benches and landscaping. It seems today that despite all the money and good intentions that were channeled into rehabilitating, commercial districts just did not have the anticipated staying power. Add to this the real estate recession of the 1990s.

There is always an emotional response from long-time residents when the stores and places that meant comfort and stability change or die.

Take Waverly, for example. The 33rd Street side wall of the old Boulevard movie theater just doesn't look right converted into a stretch of furniture rental and candy stores. To anyone who has lived or shopped here, the Boulevard should still be a movie house, especially if it's the one where you spent many a happy Saturday 35 years ago.

And many people who remain faithful to traditional shopping areas do so because of personal ties to a dry cleaner or barber or beautician or dentist.

What is happening is not confined to Baltimore. There are few old-time, conventional Main Streets in the country that don't appear troubled. Some have made comebacks with restaurants, gift and souvenir shops -- Ellicott City, for example -- but many still appear weak and lifeless.

And some neighborhood shopping districts in Baltimore have not been hard hit. The streets adjacent to the Cross Street Market are much more busy than they were 20 years ago. South Charles Street, from Montgomery to Ostend streets, has undergone a wholesale upgrade in the quality of stores and merchandise.

And certainly the Edmondson Village Shopping Center looks healthier and more attractive than it did 15 years ago. Credit good new managers who believe in this neighborhood.

But overall, the city suffers. Why? First, there were the declines in population, the loss of jobs in heavy industry and fierce competition. Don't we seem to take more of the open space in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties for some new mall or strip center?

Some of the reason for the decline in shopping districts in the city is Baltimoreans penchant for seeking a bargain.

Why is it that so many shoppers, both city and suburban, would rather get up at sunrise on the weekends to stand in line at an open-air flea market or junky off-price merchandise stall rather than buy goods in a more orderly manner? If you doubt this, just visit the sprawling marts at North Point or Patapsco Avenue.

Baltimoreans will go to extreme lengths to chase a bargain. My guess is that years of lean paychecks and an ingrained sense of thrift account for this.

And all the people who look back nostalgically on the days when they had a grilled cheese sandwich at a neighborhood drug store lunch counter or soda fountain probably voted with their pocketbooks by transferring their trade to fast-food chains.

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