THE CITY is abuzz about recently announced plans to rebuild the west side of downtown, between Charles Center and the University of Maryland's downtown campus.
Plans call for new office buildings, apartments, shops and entertainment complexes.
Quite expectedly, the focal point of the new west side will be Howard and Lexington streets -- the heart of the old downtown shopping district. Over the years, when developers or city fathers have had a new idea about improving the quality of urban life in Baltimore, they have returned repeatedly to that area.
With that in mind, it's instructive to consider the history of Lexington and Howard streets. In 1858, Hutzler's opened a store at Howard and Clay streets. Over the next 50 years, several of what would become major stores opened there, including the forerunners of Stewart's and Hecht Co.
By the 1930s, the intersection of Howard and Lexington streets was unquestionably the busiest, merriest center of downtown. However, by the 1950s, the area was in decline, with many shoppers flocking to new malls. In no time, the crossroads became a laboratory for urban rehabilitation.
In the mid-50s, city fathers decided that easing traffic woes would help make downtown a more attractive place. That's when the "Barnes Dance," named for Henry Barnes, famed traffic expert, was instituted; it allows unrestricted pedestrian crossing at an intersection while all traffic lights are set red against motorists for a few minutes. That idea died sometime in the late 1950s.
By the mid-1960s, city fathers reasoned that more shoppers could be lured downtown if a pedestrian mall were created. So the city made Lexington Street, between Eutaw and Liberty streets, a shoppers' walkway.
Now, some 30 years later, city fathers are talking about opening up Lexington Street again to vehicular traffic.
In 1986, Howard Street, from Fayette to Saratoga, got a dramatic face lift and, when the bruises had healed from the disruption and the digging, was cheerfully opened as, the Howard Street Transit Mall.
Two years later, Howard Street had to be dug up (again) to accommodate light rail train tracks.
In the mid-1990s, Howard Street was dubbed "Avenue of the Arts" as a lure for artists interested in opening shops, setting up studios. The signs proclaiming that name are still up, as is hope for the idea.
To some people, the crossroads of Howard and Lexington streets have become a trash bin of mistakes. But others see the collection of ideas centered in the intersection as something else: A historic showcase of our commitment to keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, we will.
Gilbert Sandler writes about Baltimore.
Pub Date: 12/22/98