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Shedding light on neighborhood's need for change


THIS WEEK'S news contained a story about several of the Baltimore neighborhoods where I often walk, bank, shop and dine - the Mount Vernon-Penn Station-Bolton Hill section of the city.

Tucked within the story was a comment from someone who said these neighborhoods needed a change of streetlight, perhaps outdoor lamps on a more human scale, lights geared to the sidewalk, not automobiles. Amen.

Ever since the city ripped out the graceful old streetlights I knew in my youth, I've been a critic of the aluminum poles and their ugly fluorescent glow. These are the lights that make the city look like some sort of a set for a crime movie. Charles Street is not the Baltimore Beltway.

The lights I liked were old, but they did the job. They had cast iron bases painted dark green. Not all were alike. Some of the lamp bases had fancy classical style designs. Others had bases that reminded me of coiled ropes.

The glass lamps at the top differed too. Some were relics of 1910 Baltimore. Others were more up-to-date, with pebbly glass bowls, but they fit into their surroundings nicely.

In the 1950s, a man with a bucket of water and a ladder still walked through the neighborhood and washed the glass globes atop the light poles. As strange as it seems today, the lamps on Guilford Avenue were gas. The gas gave off dirt, and the lights needed washing.

So, every so often, the lamp washer circulated through the neighborhood. It was a quaint custom, one I associate with the summer nights spent on the front porch.

I'm always for any plan that makes the city more livable. And, for me, as one who often walks to and from public transportation after dark, the idea of more comforting street lighting will get a big hand of applause and peace of mind.

There is a real mishmash of lights in the city these days. (I happen to be cursed by one of the aluminum monsters that sends its three-story-high rays into my bedroom.) Some are supposed to be historic, but they often look like third-rate Williamsburg or Society Hill. Others are just plain utilitarian. Nearly all are unsightly.

And residents and motorists will always argue about acceptable levels of street lighting. In truth, the old gas lamps were quite dull by today's standards of nocturnal brightness. On the other hand, they were very atmospheric and made people feel good about their neighborhoods.

Maybe someone out there could sponsor a competition for the perfect city streetlight, one that would please the walkers and the drivers. And while we are at it, I'd like to see a pole that holds a nice street-name sign too, with the proper hundred block attached.

I know streetlights are a small request. But are they?

I think back to those September evenings before our front porch was closed to outside sitting for the winter. The little streetlights would blink on. And that was the sign for the porch sitters to rise, go inside and settle in for the night.

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