After a workday, I was not in the same carefree tourist mood shared by all the people, the energetic, swirling evening crowds at Pratt and Calvert streets in the heart of the Inner Harbor. I thought: This is surely not the Baltimore I experienced 30 years ago, when downtown seemed to close down and retreat into hiding about sunset. Dinner after 8:30 was always iffy.
The thought occurred that maybe Pratt Street and its intersecting branches have become our new Howard Street, the downtown place where people congregate for shopping or maybe for a show or movie.
I wrestled with the Howard Street comparison most of this week, but realized that the Baltimore that has taken shape around the harbor is a more energetic and expansive place than the downtown Baltimore I experienced in the 1960s.
A few days later, I was at Aliceanna and Exeter, in the heart of Harbor East, an address you might think of as between the Power Plant and Fells Point. This is a dense urban neighborhood of new hotels and apartment buildings. Standing on Lancaster Street, I looked across the harbor toward Key Highway and thought: Where are those old decaying pilings and factories? I saw the makings of an expensive marina neighborhood.
The dredges and floating pile drivers had moved in to add new flanks of expensive townhouses. The Ritz-Carlton Residences had bypassed the debating state; the old Allied Signal site off the southwest part of Fells Point remained vacant, but seemed to be saying, "not for long."
I turned around and looked toward Little Italy and the familiar tower on St. Leo's Church. There were stores completely new to me, in buildings I haven't had time to get to know. Every time I think I'm getting a handle on Harbor East, it changes again, and I have to remind myself that I haven't left Baltimore. In a column written in 2001, I described Harbor East as being "as empty as a moonscape" Not so today, with construction cranes overhead and building material elevators working overtime. If it's true that retail follows residential, then watch out.
Regarding the Harbor East retail scene, do not expect to find a Dollar General here. This is a luxury area, heavy on city-chic sports gear emporia. This is not a place to go shopping for sensible shoes, but given all the residential construction, I wonder how long before non-frills shopping will return to downtown Baltimore, somewhat in the manner of old Howard Street?
Soon to arrive in the Aliceanna-Exeter district is a new movie theater complex from the Landmark chain. Something tells me that if the theater is a success, more shops will open here.
I walked back toward Calvert Street and stopped by the Best Buy store at Marketplace and Pratt Street. It's two escalator rides up -- and much of this building lacks retail tenants. I thought this was unfortunate because there seemed to be hordes of happy tourists streaming out from the Power Plant.
But the Best Buy was busy with customers. I thought its inventory would be electronic gear far too complicated for my limited technical ability. But no, the first thing to catch my eye was a spiffy washing machine.
Maybe Baltimore's made it when a national retailer has the confidence to sell a basic need in what I thought could only be a summertime tourist belt.