On a warm Saturday earlier this month, the Inner Harbor looked as good as the pictures in the travel brochures. I was downtown on a mission - shopping, now that a handful of new stores have opened on Pratt Street. Given the brisk business they were doing, I'll guess more will follow.
I was hauling a couple of shopping bags across Calvert Street when a thought crossed my mind: A Saturday spent shopping at Baltimore's old downtown, Howard and Lexington, was a lot more compact and easier on the feet. I thought about the presence of five department stores and having everything you could possibly buy within the space of a block or two, with a dozen bus lines to get home. If you had a car, some of the stores and Lexington Market merchants would give you a break on the parking fees.
That was 30 years ago - yet the impression lingers.
A complaint of a penny-pinching Baltimorean: Why do we have to pay so much to park at the harbor? The stores do not give dollars-off parking coupons. There is no shuttle bus to the inexpensive city parking lots like the one under I-83 that is totally empty on Saturdays (not Sundays - the farmers' market fills it up nicely). If you are able to hoof the six blocks from Saratoga to Pratt, you'll save on the $20 parking fees that are easily racked up in the garages along the Lombard Street corridor.
I applaud the national grocery chains, Whole Foods and Super Fresh, which offer some free parking time at their downtown operations.
I've been carrying shopping bags in downtown Baltimore for 45 years and observed heaps of change. Downtown now stretches all over the Westside-Harbor East map. In a single afternoon, I've gone to a Hippodrome matinee, had a snack at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel and then done some shopping on Exeter Street in one of the new buildings near the Marriott Waterfront.
The old shoppers' downtown of the 1960s and 1970s declined badly and hit bottom. It was depressing to see Howard Street fall apart. More recently, it's been a hoot to see it what has happened.
It's taken years for some fresh downtown shopping to get here. But year by year, an growing crop of shoppers tote their shopping bags at Pratt and Gay streets. I expect, as apartments rise along the harbor's edge, there will be more people using Pratt Street as their shopping rialto. To get a handle on this, just look at the amount of housing that is now being constructed along Key Highway and around the base of Federal Hill Park.
The stores on Howard Street were dense, often crowded and unmistakably urban. The downtown Baltimore we've been rebuilding for decades has a long way to go. The suburban shopping center still has its many retail venues and free parking.
The Inner Harbor is urban lite. It's all about a breezy weekend experience, a mixture of a marina, an outdoor cafe, a tourist attraction and a vacation. And now, a new outfit, too.