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Cities and celebrations


In the wake of the urban riots of 1968, the idea of thousands of people flocking downtown for fun and frolic seemed little more than fantasy. Then in 1970, Baltimoreans surprised themselves with the success of the first City Fair. It was the prelude to the renewed burst of civic energy that produced the city's renaissance, from Harborplace to Camden Yards to the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Biotechnology.

The City Fair reminded Baltimore -- and metropolitan areas around the country -- that cities were more than a collection of problems, crises and blight. Their public spaces were natural gathering places. Their neighborhoods were filled with life and energy and potential, and celebrations became an effective way of tapping those enormous stores of vitality.

If the City Fair and all the festivals it spawned helped to breathe new life into downtown Baltimore, what does it say that one of the oldest of the city's public celebrations -- the Flower Mart -- is now retreating from the cobblestones of Mt. Vernon Place? The Women's Civic League, organizers of this quaint but cherished rite of spring, suffered a rainout this year. Coming after several years of disappointing financial results, the rain prompted the league to endorse a move from Mt. Vernon to the War Memorial Plaza in front of City Hall.

But for many Baltimoreans, the Flower Mart with its geraniums and lemons with peppermint sticks is synonymous with Mt. Vernon Place. What better place to welcome spring than one of the loveliest public spaces in the country? Many people fear the Flower Mart will not survive the move. But the hard truth is that festivals take an enormous amount of volunteer work, and only the members of the Women's Civic League can honestly judge their own resources of energy and financial requirements. Volunteer efforts are bolstered by city workers who shoulder many of the major tasks, such as refurbishing and setting up the city-owned booths, providing electricity and sound systems, closing streets and redirecting traffic.

The Flower Mart's plight poses the larger issue of public celebrations in Baltimore, and what those events mean to the life and financial health of the city. Even in tough times -- especially in tough times -- it is important to bring people together in various parts of town. The Flower Mart's departure would be a blow not to tradition alone, but also to Charles Street businesses that need for people to feel some attachment to the area.

In the scramble for resources to address the city's problems, the Schmoke administration needs to remember the importance -- and the pay-off -- of kindling the city's spirit. Whether that means investing more resources in public events or finding ways to cultivate more private support, Baltimore's history shows that the effort will repay itself many times over.

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