THIS PAST Saturday, my sister Ann set the agenda for an afternoon family outing. She wanted her three children to see the tugboats that dock in Fells Point. Since it was Presidents Day weekend and we wanted to observe as many local statues as possible, we piled in her van and traveled down Broadway, all the way from North Avenue to Thames Street. (I'm not so sure my 4-year-old nieces were entranced by the bronze likeness of Mayor Latrobe, but he got noted.)
Early on this little pilgrimage, I decided to point out the very house where my grandmother Lily Rose and her four sisters had lived, a three-story Baltimore rowhouse just below old Eastern High School, where that gang earned their precious diplomas. When we got there, there was no house. It was a vacant lot, a tear-down, a vacant spot scattered with fresh straw.
Oh well, I thought, there was no reason why 1815 N. Broadway should have been saved - many houses are being abandoned and later demolished in East Baltimore. And, in fact, hadn't they left that address in 1915? Didn't my grandmother often speak of an earlier house on Aisquith Street, one that was torn down many, many years ago for a public housing project?
Within a few minutes, we were at the foot of Broadway, enjoying the Kings Point and other maroon Moran tugs, then took off across the harbor for Locust Point and my sister Josie's house. There we walked to Tide Point at the foot of Hull Street, the site of the old Procter & Gamble plant, which has quickly become my favorite new Baltimore address. Other visitors have discovered the place, too; there were people all over the magnificent boardwalk and observation deck. The neighboring Domino plant was busy - a crane constantly scooped raw brown sugar from a barge.
It was a gorgeous, late winter afternoon, one that made me proud to be a Baltimorean. The harbor and its backdrop of old and new buildings could not have been finer - one of the tugs even put on a little show by leaving its berth and steaming down the harbor. It tooted to a passing sailboat, and we all cheered.
Four days later came the news story that our leaders in Annapolis are growing concerned about the obscure tax-credit program that has been such a financial boon to Tide Point and so many other aging Baltimore commercial landmarks that need millions of dollars worth of expensive rehabilitation.
Obviously this tax credit is costing Marylanders. On the other hand, I'd like people to get out and observe the tremendous results these tax credits are achieving. I'd also like to nominate some of my own pet to-do restorations: the American Brewery on Gay Street and the Parkway Theatre on North Avenue, for example.
Another day this week I was heading across West Franklin Street in search of some Rheb's chocolates at the Lexington Market. When my cab passed the recently restored Congress Hotel, I told the driver to put on the brakes.
I spotted a door left open by painters, and soon I was inside a glorious, nearly 100-year-old interior, all freshly replastered and painted and looking like a bride's dream wedding cake. Another old Baltimore landmark had finally been restored - after sitting in a kind of architectural limbo for 25 years. Once again, another treasure had been saved and nicely restored because of what I would call an effective financial tool, a result far more to my taste than the bulldoze-'em urban renewal of the 1950s and '60s.
I realize all these projects - and the tax credits they have been awarded - are expensive, but look at what we're getting.
Just yesterday morning, I was hoofing to work down Charles Street when I happened to spot Buzz Cusack, who owns and restored the Charles Theatre. Without even raising the topic, he credited the Maryland tax program as bringing back this much-appreciated cultural asset - as well as the popular restaurant next door that is bringing people back to the streets after dark.
I know that the tab for restoring an old city like Baltimore will be big - and somebody has got to pay. (I think of my own costs of keeping up an 1870s house on Saint Paul Street.) On the other hand, I take no joy from seeing my grandmother's childhood home on Broadway become a vacant lot.