On a glorious weekend of bright sun and cool breezes, throngs of people came to Harborplace, pushing strollers along the brick promenade, slurping down homemade lemonade, hanging out on benches and watching boats on the water. They came for the food, the stores, the museums.
Many residents deride the Inner Harbor as nothing more than a tourist spot, and just blocks away, the relaxed feeling, the perfect landscaping, the ringing cash register fade into struggling neighborhoods. But today, as Mayor Martin O'Malley and other dignitaries cut a huge cake to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harborplace, few may grasp that this spot has become a community all its own.
Young men propose in the paddle boats. Mothers living in housing projects bring their children here to learn about boats. Retired Baltimoreans arrive each day to sit on benches and enjoy their patch of peace. People who started out here years ago as trash boys or awkward teenagers on their first jobs never left and turned Harborplace into a career. They've made fast friends. They feel like they're someplace special.
"At certain parts of the day, when the sun hits the water a certain way, I catch myself and say, 'This is beautiful,'" said Kevin Harrison, 37, a West Baltimore man who manages the paddle boats.
This is where Orioles' fans celebrated the 1983 World Series win, where the city unveiled the name of its new football team, where thousands come every July to see the fireworks. It's the place that many come to feel good about Baltimore.
In the last few years, the two green-roofed pavilions at Light and Pratt streets have been renovated, with air -conditioning upgraded and new escalators installed. New restaurants have opened. Workers from the Department of Public Works replaced hundreds of bricks. And the people keep coming: from 10 million a year in 1996 to more than 15 million a year now.
The complex that made Baltimore a tourist town harbors stories they don't even realize.
Fun with fudge
One of the most sought-after jobs for young people in Baltimore is at Harborplace's The Fudgery. At this store in the Light Street Pavilion, young workers serve up song and dance along with the 15 flavors of homemade fudge. They croon and wriggle and laugh and cajole hundreds of customers into buying 420 pounds of fudge a day.
To even get an application form, a person must be willing to step up impromptu and sing a song to the dozens of customers milling nearby. A worker rings the brass bell, and regional manager Paul Lewis calls out, "Ladies and gentleman, this person is about to sing for an application!"
About half the potential applicants lose their nerve and leave. The rest step up and belt out their tunes. If they make this cut, then they must perform before the skeptical crew, first singing a regular song and then a "fudge" song with fudge lyrics. (These include replacing the words from "Tomorrow," from the show "Annie," to "Free sam-ples, free sam-ples, there's always, free sam-ples...")
Some teens will sing gospel, or rock, or even opera. Because they're technically on stage all the time, making the fudge in full view of everyone, they also must demonstrate acting talent, performing a monologue or miming. At the end of the audition, applicants must tell two jokes, because along with their voice, they must have a "fudge" personality, meaning they have fun all the time.
The competition is fierce. At any one time, regional manager Paul Lewis has more than 80 applications for just two slots. Some youths are so desperate to get in that they get Lewis on the phone and serenade him, although many don't realize they're tone deaf. One girl did cartwheels and then a series of flips down the cool gray tiles of the pavilion.
"We like to think of it as an off-Broadway product," says Lewis, 25. Two singing groups that began at The Fudgery have made records.The Rosedale man tries to let in some of the shy, awkward boys that remind him of himself at their age. At 17, he and his friends from Randallstown used to laugh at the "corny" guys singing at The Fudgery. But he needed a job and couldn't find one anywhere else, and his sister worked there. Lewis struggled to shape the loaves of rich fudge, and when he sang, his voice came out thin and wobbly. A few weeks into his work, he overheard a manager saying, "This kid's not going to make it."
From that point on, Lewis decided to be the best. He stayed there, growing in confidence, working his way through Towson University. He even delayed law school to take his current position, overseeing five stores, including Harborplace's.
"It's the only job where you get paid to have a good time," declares Lewis.
When you're a street performer at Harborplace, you have to be on the alert for many variables: the horn from the Water Taxi, the little boy volunteer who accidentally goes to the bathroom in front of the crowd, the occasional person fainting from the heat. But for Mike Rosman, who has been performing here for years, there is nothing better than a weekend like this to do his show.
"It's just incredible," said Rosman, 33, who has become such a staple that his picture was on the front of the 20th anniversary T-shirts distributed this weekend.
Nationwide, Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a prestige spot for these performers. It's known, Rosman says, for its wide, sloping amphitheater between the pavilions, for the big crowds, and for the friendly, family-packed audiences. That means there are rarely nasty drunks harassing the showmen.
There are always hazards of the job, though. Rosman does physical comedy, riding his unicycle and juggling knives and sticks of fire. He can balance himself on a board on top of a bowling ball, on top of a 3-foot-high table, and juggle three torches. He's singed his eyebrows and nicked his hands on his knives.
Once, while doing a trick in which he tries to jump onto his 6-foot-tall unicycle and then does a fake fall, he fell badly, breaking his foot. His usual line to the crowd is, "It's OK, I'm not hurt."
He said the line anyway, and because he couldn't walk, he rode on the unicycle for the rest of the show, telling his jokes. At the end, he jumped off, landed on his good foot, and put out his hat. (The street performers are not paid anything other than the tips from the audience.) When everyone left, he sat down and started to cry.
The Reisterstown man learned his trade here in Baltimore. As a teen-ager, he marveled at the street performers at Harborplace. He liked the sound of the crowd laughing. He did his first shows here, learning from his mistakes and from others. Ambassadors have watched him here and asked him to perform at their embassies. Now, he's parlayed it into a full-time career, performing around the world, on cruises and for corporate events.
But Baltimore's venue is still his favorite. Rosman savors the moments when someone comes up minutes after a show has finished, because they went to get change to give him a tip. He relishes the guys who know his show so well that they can shout out all the punch lines.
And he loves the laughter.
'Make it pretty'
Most people don't know what to make of Alice Greely-Nelson.
The Baltimore woman roams the pavilions at Harborplace with a big bucket stuffed with earrings, menus, and fake ice cream cones. Officially, she' s a "visual merchandiser." That means she dresses up the windows, designs the beloved Santa House, and when she spots an empty wall or storefront, masterminds a mural or something beautiful to cover it up.
"I'm just the person who tries to make it pretty," said Nelson, 45.
She's known for startling visitors as she crosses Pratt Street, with arms or legs from mannequins sticking out of her bags. In one of her storerooms, deep in the parking garage, she's stowed the treasures she works with: a flower cart, Greek columns, a fake lifeguard chair, crates stained with red from last year's haunted house on the Pirate Ship.
She maneuvers her props around on carts, once hitting a large plate glass window in the wrong spot and shattering it. Another time, while working in one of the oversized windows in the Gallery, she heard screaming and sirens. A young man was jumping from balcony to balcony, all the way to the bottom, where he landed right in front of her window, startling her. He was a graffiti artist escaping from police.
At 5 p.m. Friday, as she readied for the anniversary celebration, her cell phone rang frequently. She walked fast through the Harborplace pavilions in her work apron, checking out the displays in scores of windows and plastic cubes. She creates them using merchandise from various shops.
"It's like I'm painting in three-D," said Nelson, waving to Mike Gathers, the housekeeping supervisor for Harborplace. "Big Mike," 38, started out 20 years ago as a trash boy. Like him, Nelson was there on opening day. She was working on a push cart and eventually expanded into her own business. She and her husband, David, used cardboard, wood and packing tubes to build the two 3-foot-tall cakes that will sit on either end of the stage at today's celebration, where Patty Rouse, widow of Harborplace developer James Rouse, plans to wear the same yellow dress she did to the opening 20 years ago.
Much of the work the Nelsons do in their studio and kitchen in their Stone Hill home. Sometimes, she gets "artist's block" and can't figure out what to do. But she relies on trips to other cities, her fellow designers and her daughter Delancey for inspiration. And somehow, it always works out, she says.
"It's amazing how it just kind of fits together like a puzzle."
Every day, Kevin Harrison overhears the visitors lining up for the paddle boats at the Inner Harbor. Wives are talking to husbands, worrying about venturing into the harbor. By the time they reach the top of the line, all their fears come out, and they ask Harrison, the manager, point-blank:
Are there sharks in the harbor? How deep is the water? What happens if I can't paddle all the way back? Can I have two life jackets?
He usually calms them, and by the time they're beside the brightly-colored boats bobbing in the water, most will don the required orange life vests and climb in. But then there are the troublemakers, the people who want to jump in the harbor and go for a swim, the people who think they can play bumper boats, the people who want to paddle over to the Rusty Scupper and get a drink.
That's when Harrison has to launch the chase boat.
Skidding across the water, the majestic masts of the U.S.S. Constellation to his right, the U.S. Torsk submarine on his left, he remembers his days in the Merchant Marine. Then he calls out to the errant paddle boats, bringing them back inside the two white buoys that mark the paddle boat boundaries.
"This is great," says Harrison, "because I love being on the sea, and I love teaching." Usually, the only people who fall in are Harrison's workers, who sometimes slip on the floating dock. And there are plenty of regulars. Women from downtown offices walk over on their lunch breaks and use the paddle boats as their regular exercise work-outs. For most others, it's a time to relax. Harrison said parents like to have their children paddle while they put their feet up and enjoy the view. Husbands sometimes fall asleep.
"Most people don't own a boat," said Ed Kane, the businessman who originally launched the paddle boats in 1975 and ran them for many years.
Even when it gets near 100 degrees, people still flock to the paddle boats, bringing umbrellas for shade. In the evenings, the paddle boats become a romantic destination for couples. Sometimes, it goes too far, Kane said.
But usually, it's just Harborplace being the oasis it is.
"They're just out there," Harrison said, "holding hands, snuggled up, just floating."