As new buildings go up in downtown, nostalgia for old Baltimore builds up

The Baltimore Sun

Even in slow and deliberate Baltimore, things arrive and depart rapidly in the Inner Harbor East. I'd read that several new apartment towers were ready for residents. My niece Liz talks about its jazzy sportswear, shoe and handbag stores. And maybe one day this summer I'll make it to the movie theater complex now that the MTA has routed a new bus line along Fleet Street.

Change always unsettles my sense of urban geography. On a short walk this week through the Inner Harbor East (think: Fleet, Lancaster, Caroline and the Jones Falls - the waterway, not the expressway) I recently missed some familiar landmarks.

Victor's Cafe has disappeared, as in: does not exist, here at least. This quirky circular restaurant was a sentinel when this part of Baltimore was locked in a developmental no-man's-land. Victor's, which faced the harbor at Lancaster Street, opened about 1995 in what I guess was a temporary building with a deck. In those days, this was an industrial neighborhood awaiting an infusion of new money.

As Victor's site became more valuable, its days grew numbered. I wasn't around to see it vanish, but it was torn down, and now it's a heavy construction site for the new Legg Mason tower and a Four Seasons Hotel. (Victor's Cafe packed up and moved to York Road in Timonium.)

Not so long ago, the Katyn Memorial Circle was so empty it resembled a street in the outreaches of a suburban neighborhood where the sewer lines had not been dug. Today the Katyn Circle, adjacent to the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, is just about filled up with piles of booming new construction prosperity.

The last time I watched all this transformation in Baltimore was in the early 1960s, when a part of the main section of downtown was carved up and reconfigured as the Charles Center. Now we're at it again - and it seems to me the planners have learned to build a denser, more interesting city than we did in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Charles Center made its appearance.

The other landmark I seemed to have lost is Federal Hill. Its grassy slopes were once plainly visible from Lancaster Street, but that vista has been taken by the Ritz-Carlton Residences. I was able to spot a little patch of green from the front door of the Marriott, but the hill's contour is now blocked behind a wall of new apartments.

Cities are all about change, and maybe Baltimore got stalled for too long. I liked the old view, but I can also see why there was so much pressure to develop and build along the harbor shoreline. You can't blame people for wanting a good view, and Baltimore certainly delivers the goods.

In the old days (pre-1980) much of this view was obscured by a busy industrial dry dock, its cranes and visiting vessels at the old Key Highway shipyard. It was then one of my most favorite Baltimore scenes, the shipyard at night, lighted by a zillion bulbs. And while we are talking about majestic, lovely vistas, how about the Old Bay Line's City of Norfolk leaving for its nightly passage down the Chesapeake Bay?


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