Old Town celebrates its survival

Dietrich Williams, 31, and Kevin Lee, 29, hope Baltimore officials can make good on the latest attempt to revive Old Town Mall, but rather than wait on the city, they sponsored a block party yesterday to let the world know the struggling inner-city shopping center is still alive.

"This is what you call true entrepreneurship because you're coming into a ghost town," said Lee, whose Total 3 Sixty apparel shop opened in August. "We're going to keep putting the word out. We're just going to keep on striving, bringing the music, doing what we got to do."


Kevin J. Malachi, who oversees commercial revitalization in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said the city is again looking for a developer who can bring a major retailer to the East Baltimore shopping center. The bid request should be finished next week and sent out shortly thereafter to several interested parties, he said.

The move comes more than a year after city leaders announced a $4.8 million plan for a supermarket, bank and fast-food restaurant. Those plans fell through, and the failure took away the hopes of some merchants. SuperKids, one of the longtime retailers, closed its doors this year. A three-alarm fire in May destroyed several vacant storefronts in the 400 block of Old Town Mall. City officials used $100,000 set aside for the mall to demolish the buildings.


"It was an eyesore, and it was city-owned property," said Malachi. "The city wanted to show the community and the merchants that we were taking care of business."

Merchants aren't putting too much stock in the city's promises. They have had eight years of promises. Still, they hope a developer will step forward, break ground and bring Old Town the psychological and economic boost they say it so desperately needs.

Stanley S. Zerden, president of Old Town's merchant association, said business owners are no longer tied to the idea of having a supermarket. Kmart or a similar store would be welcomed, he said.

"What we're trying to do is think a little bit out of the box," he said. "It's a very hard site, but once you get one [major store], all the rest will fall in line."

Despite the past failures, Zerden remains an optimist.

"The lights have been dimmed a little bit, but it's only out of frustration," he said. "You can't worry about the battles you lose. You have to win the war."

Merchants had hoped for new development to coincide with the opening of Pleasant View Gardens, the townhouse community that replaced Lexington Terrace public housing complex several years ago. Last year's announcement had many thinking a major store could open just as the state's $41 million juvenile justice center nears completion a short walk away in the 300 block of N. Gay St. Those hopes vanished when no developer could be found.

"From what I hear [the problem] has been the demographics of the area," said Malachi. "We think that can be worked around with a business [that] understands urban marketing and ... the potential of the area."


Old Town's merchants question the demographic argument. Poor people shop and buy food just like everyone else, they say.

"Safeway, Giant, they don't know the community. But we know the community, and that's what keeps us motivated to do what we have to do to stay open," said Williams. "We've seen the mall at its pinnacle ... and we know it can happen again."

Williams graduated from Dunbar High School, a stone's throw from the mall. He spent years in the retail business, managing stores, gaining experience. He dreamed of owning his own place. He looked around, but found rents were too high in the malls. Old Town was affordable, and he knew the neighborhood.

Last month, with a loan from his uncle, he opened Urban Family Wear. He put "family" in the name, he said, because his is a family-run business. Yesterday, as the block party went on outside his door, his son, Dietrich Jr., 12, and a cousin, Marcus Wise, 17, were on duty inside.

Old Town was once a model of urban success. Twenty-five years ago, visiting city planners marveled at how Baltimore saved a piece of its history and turned what began as a farmers' market in the1890s into a successful, inner-city pedestrian mall. The dedication plaque from 1975 proudly called Old Town "a center of community life." Lee says it can still reclaim that title.

"It's a landmark," he said. "Everybody knows how to get here."


When his two business partners pulled out about two years ago, Lee held on with the help of a low-interest loan. Like many of the merchants here, he relies on a cadre of friends and loyal customers more than walk-in shoppers to keep his doors open.

Yesterday, foot traffic was steady at the north end of the mall, where the block party was held. That was good for merchants, but they want the city's help in shedding the look of neglect that permeates the mall's two blocks. Broken light fixtures haven't been replaced, knee-high weeds have taken over an empty lot. Bricks that have been torn from the walkway have never been replaced. Shuttered storefronts are covered with graffiti. Yet, business goes on.

The city's promises to revitalize the mall kept Upward Way, a church supply firm, from leaving.

"Now, we're hanging on by a thread," said Anita McConnell, 32, store manager. "A lot of people think the mall is closed. But we're still here."