'River' subsides, Charles Street businesses re-open

After a day in which they temporarily became waterfront businesses, shops and cafes on North Charles Street began reopening Thursday, when the river created by a massive water main break at 20th Street receded.

While several blocks remained closed to vehicular traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and the occasional skateboarder enjoyed the dry pavement and fewer speeding cars. About 450 moviegoers headed into the Charles Theater for a talk and screening with director Oliver Stone. Restaurants welcomed back the business they lost to Wednesday's gusher from a 60-inch, 90-year-old broken main.

"You can't cry about it with all the people who lost their homes a couple days ago," said florist Vander Pearson, referring to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

He and his staff had to walk a couple of blocks to meet a delivery truck that couldn't drive to the shop, Pearson's Florist at Charles and North Avenue, to drop off his order. They wheeled a cart usually used for their summertime snowball stand, retrieved several long boxes of flowers and greenery, and hurried back to the store to arrange them into sprays for a funeral later in the day.

"They saw us on television," Pearson said of the customer who had called, worried that the shop wouldn't be able to deliver.

Some businesses remained idled, though, as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. cut off a gas line to 46 commercial and residential buildings in the vicinity of Charles and 20th Street to accommodate crews repairing the nearby broken water main. Crews began restoring gas to some of those customers Thursday night, and more would be restored Friday, BGE said.

But merchants were glad the muddy water that had coursed down Charles on Wednesday narrowed by Thursday morning to a stream on the east side of the street. Eventually, even that trickled away.

"Baltimore's an old city, so you've just got to deal with it," said Tony Jobst, standing outside the Club Charles, which his girlfriend's family owns. The kitchen and heating system of the club, famous for its John Waters sightings, are gas-powered.

Jobst and Tom Alexander, general manager of the 1722 After Hours dance club next door, visited on the sidewalk, watching the work crews and enjoying the midday quiet when the street was still blocked off from traffic. It reminded them of the several years starting in 2000 when their stretch of the street dead-ended just to the south, while the bridge over the Amtrak tracks was being rebuilt.

"It's our own little area," Alexander said. "Neighbors help neighbors."

Indeed, Jobst had just left the club about an hour before the main broke and sent water coursing down Charles, but one of those neighbors put sandbags in front of the club's doors to protect it.

Merchants depend on one another for business as well. Across the street, workers who had arrived at Sofi's Crepes in the morning, thinking they were just going to clean up, instead fired up the griddles when they saw the crowds arriving for the Oliver Stone event at the Charles.

"There was no damage," said Chase Gillian. "We were very fortunate."

Sofi's manager Joe Delano said they served about 30 customers, a bit fewer than a typical weekday lunch.

"It's been pretty slow," agreed Erin Taylor, who was serving a few customers at the Bohemian Coffee House. "We were closed yesterday because of the water."

With the sun out, a couple of customers at both cafes enjoyed outdoor tables. Even as the cleanup continued and traffic was blocked on Charles and a few adjacent streets, this has always been as much a walk-to as drive-to neighborhood. And on Thursday, it took on even more of a village atmosphere during the hours when there was no car traffic.

"We have such a loyal customer base … a very pedestrian kind of crowd," of MICA students, workers at the nearby Walbert office building and others who live in the community, said Kevin Brown, co-owner of the Station North Arts Cafe.

Brown, who seemed to know every customer by name, prepared breakfasts and then lunches for his regulars, happy that he was not forced to close even on Wednesday.

By the evening rush hour, cars were allowed back on Charles up to North Avenue, where it was blocked off for the two blocks up to 21st Street. Remaining closed to vehicular traffic were the westbound lanes of North Avenue between St. Paul Street, and Charles and Lanvale Street between St. Paul and Maryland Avenue. Lafayette Street was re-opened to through traffic.

Crews were able to begin pumping water that had collected in the void under the street where the main had broken, said Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the city's Department of Public Works.

He said homes and businesses in the area are not likely to lose water service as repairs continue, although water pressure may be down. The city does not have an estimate for how long the repairs might take.

"We want to expedite it as much as we can because we have a major intersection here, and we have traffic concerns," Kocher said.

BGE crews remained on the scene as a precaution, said spokeswoman Rachael Lighty, though none of the natural gas infrastructure has been compromised. She said the company cut gas service as a "proactive measure to ensure the integrity of that gas main."

She did not have an estimate on when the gas service would be completely restored. Customers who have flooded rooms should not walk through standing water if they have not shut off their electricity, Lighty said.

BGE had locksmiths opening the doors to some businesses Thursday morning so crews could shut off gas service.

Sherman Smith, co-owner of Club Choices nightclub, was livid when he found his door had been pried open by a locksmith.

"Who gives BGE authority to break into the building?" Smith said, noting that neither he nor his business partner were contacted. He said he goes to the club everyday but it only opens on Saturdays.

Lighty said the company uses locksmiths only as the last resort. She said the standard procedure is to make several attempts to contact customers, including leaving door hangers with instructions to contact BGE to shut off service. She said automated messages were also sent to customers Wednesday night.

Smith, who also owns the neighboring hair salon, Perfect Touch, had to close on Wednesday and only had a few customers on Thursday morning. But he was hopeful that the after-work crowd would be back now that the water had subsided and traffic was restored.

"I've had a few people walking in," said Smith, who moved his salon to Charles Street about five years ago from Woodlawn. "I wanted to be in the city because of the foot traffic."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ed Gunts contributed to this article.

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