On a crummy day in December, the contractor Marty Azola, who made a career of renovating old buildings, stepped out of the amazing Ivy Hotel, his crowning achievement at Biddle and Calvert streets, and into a freezing rain. Azola looked around and remarked that, having visited many cities, he considered Baltimore’s 19th-century residences, particularly those in Mount Vernon, among the world’s finest. The churches there are stunning, too.
The other day, I decided to take a minute with Emmanuel Episcopal, the one that towers over the corner of Read and Cathedral streets. The people who commissioned this stunning edifice in the decade before the Civil War wanted a church that called to the heavens, and if you stand at the front door and look up at the bell tower, with its rough-hewn stone and figurines, you can appreciate that achievement.
Given the state of the city these days — violent crime, struggling schools, shaky political leadership — you might also slip into reverie about Baltimore back when masons built the tower. It was after the establishment of the port and the railroad; commerce through the city created wealth, and wealth created an elite that could afford the donations and pew rentals that made such a grand church possible.
Of course, there is no monument to the slums and unsanitary conditions of the middle 19th century. You can no longer smell the horse-drawn, pig-squealing Baltimore of 1854, when Emmanuel Episcopal opened. There are no markers nearby to the poverty, racism and harsh employment conditions of the era, or to the financial failures that made Baltimore’s bankers unwilling to take risks that might have led to wider prosperity. Matthew Crenson’s excellent 2017 book, “Baltimore: A Political History,” provided this perspective. Crenson’s portrait revealed an emerging city that had so much potential, but potential either stunted or never realized.
No city is ever perfect or complete. Cities evolve, they heave and collapse with changing conditions. Some adapt and recover faster than others. Some, like Baltimore, are full of contradictions, and chronically so. Example: The amount of residential construction taking place today as the city continues to see violent crime at a depressing rate. You can stand in Harbor East, or almost anywhere on the south or southeastern sides of the city, and see construction cranes and workers building something new or fixing something old, then look down at your smart phone and see a tweet about another homicide in East Baltimore. As of Friday, there had been 62 of them citywide in the first 81 days of the year.
And so, when I look up at the stunning bell tower of Emmanuel Episcopal, I consider what was then and what is now.
In the mid-19th century, Baltimore was a tough place for a lot of people; it suffered financial setbacks before and after the Civil War. And yet, despite its problems, the people who lived here continued to believe in it; they continued to build it. The city grew for the next century, reaching a population of 900,000 in 1950.
Now consider the major story lines since then: White flight following the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling against racial segregation in public schools; the construction of highways in and around the city; the loss of industry and union jobs; the concentration of poverty; the spread of drug addiction, escalating violence associated with drug commerce, the war on drugs leading to higher incarceration rates; the deep racial and social divide in public education, and the decline of city schools.
I come back to race in all things, either in looking at Baltimore’s past or trying to imagine its future — you know, assuming we ever snap out of the current crime-and-chaos tailspin.
A new national study of gentrification between 2000 and 2013 found that when the Big G happened in Baltimore, it was in neighborhoods that were already heavily white. The great concern — that poor black families would be displaced by better educated, more affluent whites — has not happened here to the degree it did in other cities. There has been investment in traditionally white areas, little in traditionally black areas. Thus, a place like Lafayette Square, though near a commuter train stop in West Baltimore, has been neglected and many of its three-story rowhouses abandoned.
“Many of the buildings, both religious and residential, that surround the perimeter of the park were designed by the same architects that created the landmark structures of Mount Vernon,” architect David Gleason wrote in an email last week. “It still retains much of that memorable character that made it one of the most desirable locations to live in Baltimore in the 1880s.”
It’s a place of immense potential — there’s that word again — if it can be made safe, if developers and banks can be convinced to invest there. Most of all, it needs 21st-century people to believe in it again, as those in the 19th century did.