A Void in Baltimore

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The final episode of The Wire aired last night; I’m a season behind, but the attendant publicity has left me a bit nostalgic for Baltimore, where the show is set and where I spent my college years. The Wire is about many things, but its central theme is the tragic deterioration and abandonment of inner-city Baltimore (and by extension, inner-city America). In one of those extra features you get on DVD, Wire creator David Simon mentions that Baltimore “falls down beautifully.” From street level, the burned-out and boarded-up rowhouses do have a perverse, Ozymandian poetry to them.

From the air, the picture isn’t quite so romantic. The satelite image above shows the site that was once home to Memorial Stadium. An entire neighborhood is oriented in a horsehoe around it. But there’s practically nothing on the site now. It’s a void. The last remnant of Memorial Stadium came down in 2002. That was a concrete wall dedicated to local soldiers who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars. It read, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”

The Orioles moved into Camden Yards in 1994. You’d think that, when the city agreed to build a new home for the team, there would have been a plan for the old site. But that’s not how the development game works. A rising tide doesn’t necessarily lift all boats. The money was downtown, and that’s where it stayed.

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I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room, listening to Jon Miller call O’s games from the old stadium. The team dropped 21 straight that year, 1988. As a sophmore, I moved into a classic Baltimore rowhouse on Guilford Avenue with a few friends. (I’ve marked it with a blue pin on the image above; the campus of Johns Hopkins, where I went to school, is on the left.) We got over to see the Birds kick it around a few times every year back then. It was an easy walk, just a few blocks east down 33rd street and you were right in front of the place. Inside, you could be sure that Cal Ripken would be in the lineup, and Eddie Murray, too. It was a lunch pale type of ballpark, which seemed fitting for the town and the club. The new place is infinitely nicer, but I will always have affection for the old. It’s upsetting to see how little value the city has placed on that history, that site, and the people who live there.

Based on my intermittent visits, the past decade hasn’t been especially kind to the area around the old stadium. Due to a shortage of housing on the Hopkins campus, in my day most students rented places in Charles Village, the neighborhood surrounding the school. The ghetto was just on the other side of Guilford. After my graduation, the school decided to build more housing. (It was suffering in college ranking guides because “percentage of students who live in university housing” is one of the criteria used to evaluate schools, even if it has zero bearing on academics or even student life.) With all of the new housing, students moved out of Charles Village, and the result was increased segregation between the school and the city, a drop in property values, and the encroachment of the ghetto. (Yes, this seems like a Wire storyline.) A city is a fragile ecosystem. It’s easy to disturb, and it’s hard to fix.

This is always my favorite time of year in Baltimore. Early spring. It’s not long before the cherry trees blossom. All is promise for the Hopkins lacrosse team (they’re defending national champs this year). It’s going to be a tough year for the O’s, but it looks like they may finally be taking steps to build for the future. It’s a new day. I hear a new senior center is coming to the old Memorial Stadium site. And maybe the Preakness will be moving to Pigtown. You never know. In Baltimore, hope springs eternal.

16 comments… add one

  • Great post, YF. Definitely my favorite time of year around there as well. The one time of year when the O’s are still even with the Yanks and Sox!

    ToddSF March 10, 2008, 11:39 am
  • Sad to see what happened to Memorial Stadium; probably 20 of my first 25 baseball games were there when i was a wee lad. i moved to Boston at a young enough age to adopt the Sox, but Cal Ripken remained my favorite, pretty much permanently (i got tickets to all three of his last games at Fenway). There’s still some part of me that still associates baseball with faint memories of that old art deco facade draped with Orioles banners, sitting in upper-deck metal bleachers, and waiting in the lot across the street for the parked-in cars to make their way home, listening to the post-game on the radio. Thanks for the write-up!

    rcolonna (sf) March 10, 2008, 11:50 am
  • I lived in a West Baltimore rowhouse, north of Patterson Park, for a year a few years back. I couldn’t believe the disparity between that area and Canton just on the other side of the park. Even worse was the difference just a mile toward the Harbor. I always shopped at the Whole Foods but that’s because the neighborhood market was worse than what I had seen in third-world countries – bare shelves, rotting meat, and no brand names. Simply I was appalled.
    I don’t want to denigrate your alma mater, but they are complicit in at least some of this mess. I’ve also spent some time in Philadelphia and there the universities have done much more to bring back West Philadelphia. Even then though, that’s after a long period of failing the city. The worst is that these models of higher education build student housing more for greed than for anything else. They have a very nice margin on room and board, and why give that up? Better to instill a fear in students and parents of the surrounding community to keep them on campus.

    A YF March 10, 2008, 12:10 pm
  • Just responding to A YF.
    It’s unfair to blame Hopkins for the mess that is B’more. If anything they do the most for the city. They’re the biggest employers and provide alot of jobs for the residents.
    It’s also difficult to see how Hopkins has been instilling “fear” in students when there were consecutive years of student deaths, in addition to routine thefts and robberies.
    Because of these dangers, before student housing was provided for upper classmen, the rental properties surrounding Hopkins were astronomically high. I paid 1.7k + utilities for a 2 bed-room apartment.
    Lastly, violent crime is higher in Philly than Baltimore, so I’m not even sure how you can pat Philly universities on the back.

    JHU Graduate, and YF March 10, 2008, 12:38 pm
  • You’re taking what I said out of context.
    1) I said: “I don’t want to denigrate your alma mater, but they are complicit in at least some of this mess.”
    Building student housing worsens the problem. What you need are Universities getting out and investing in the surrounding neighborhood – housing for staff, faculty, and students.
    2) Instilling fear is building walls between the University and the surrounding community. If you feel safe on campus, you’re spend much more time there – eating and sleeping. See again #1.
    3) High rental prices? See again #1. Furthermore, I bet you still saved money over living in a dorm – more expensive and less space while paying more for food.
    4) Violent crime? You’ve got your facts wrong. Baltimore has twice the homicide rate of Philadelphia and highest in the nation. Meanwhile, I wasn’t pointing to crime. That’s a separate argument. I was simply pointing to the role of universities leading investments in the surrounding city. Drexel, and Penn have done much, as I understand it, but that came after a long period of utter negligence. As an example, Penn helps faculty purchase houses in West Philadelphia. The area has come back noticeably in the last ten years.

    A YF March 10, 2008, 12:58 pm
  • i was born and raised in Annapolis and was an O’s fan for the first 10 years of my life. the first games i ever saw was at old Memorial. that was also the stadium that turned me into a sox fan. in march of ’84 the colts moved out of town in the middle of the night (damn you mayflower) and i swore off all Baltimore teams for life. my father took me to a sox-o’s game that summer and it was decided. i spent summers with my grandparents in beverly ma. attending as many games from june to august as possible (the empty eighties of fenway park).
    i’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years now and would probably break my run for some chesapeake blue crabs during a ball game. sorry to go all nostalgic but it just kills me to hear things like Baltimorgue and Muderland.

    sf rod March 10, 2008, 6:59 pm
  • I didn’t mean to be Debbie Downer (whah whaahh)…
    Some things I loved about Baltimore in my time there (in no particular order):
    Patterson Park
    Farmer’s Market under I-83
    The Helmand
    Cheap tickets and great seats at Camden Yards
    American Visionary Art Museum
    Capital Grille
    Canton
    Babe Ruth Museum
    Charleston
    Inner Harbor
    ESPN Zone during a Ravens Game

    A YF March 10, 2008, 7:21 pm
  • Its certainly fair to say Hopkins dropped the ball in the early 90s (and before). They definitely did not support the city in the way they should have. Things have changed though and JHU is much more an active part of Charles Village. Not sure it’s all good (but then I never liked Charles Village so many better places in Baltimore). But having just recently left after my second tour at JHU things are better than they were for my ugrad degree in the 90s. Why JHU didn’t support doing something with Memorial or getting a subway into Charles village I will never know. It’s also fair to say they had a common stance among universities (I’ve also been at U Chicago & Harvard who both had problems). I love & miss Camden though, especially when the sox were in town.

    John Grimes March 10, 2008, 7:44 pm
  • I’ll take that bait A-YF. Here are a few things i love about baltimore:
    -latrobe’s cathedral
    -north calvert with cherry blossoms
    -the walters
    -john waters at the senator
    -the idea that maybe, just maybe, lt. daniels exists
    -duff
    -mica
    -the “o” in the national anthem
    -fells point bric-a-brac shops
    -john johansen’s symphonically ugly morris mechanic
    -paul sahre’s theater posters
    -gilman quad and the beach
    -1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 WE WANT MORE!

    YF March 11, 2008, 5:04 pm
  • Hate to be something of a breath of bitter Baltimore air, but there are a couple of points I could not help but point out. By the way, Pigtown is one word, not two.
    A YF: Patterson Park is nowhere near West Baltimore, as it is firmly placed on the east side of town, just north of Canton and Fells Point, adjacent to Butchers Hill, and before you enter Highlandtown (Hon!). You had your neighborhoods right, just the wrong side of town.
    Now, if you want to have a conversation around development, let me jump in. I do not disagree that the development of Batlimore was focused around the harbor, but it really has been in the last 10 years that the areas outside of the harbor center are starting to see development. On the West Side, UM is starting to assert itself, and on the East Side, the Hopkins Biotech Park is looking to drive a lot of commercial and residential redevelopment in an area long blighted. The problem was that the harbor was–and the rest of the waterfront by extension–are Baltimore’s “Gold Coast,” if you will.
    That said, the other issue concerning development of the old Memorial Stadium is a problematic one. The site was not owned by the city, if memory serves. Additionally, Memorial was being used by the CFL Stallions, the Bowie Baysox, and the Ravens when it was left empty following the move of the Orioles to Camden. Thus, the Stadium was not empty until 1999 when the Ravens moved to what is now M&T Bank Stadium. It was then that the stadium was torn down, and the next year the plan for a senior residential neighborhood, a YMCA, and Hopkins’ presence in what was the old Eastern High School just across 33rd St. Additionally, the Waverly neighborhood around the old site has finally begun to turn a corner a bit, after falling on hard times like many other parts of the city.
    P.S. The 0-21 start to the season was in 1988, and the following the year the Birds almost made it a worst-to-first turnaround. I still hate Gregg Olson to this day for blowing that save against the Blow Jays. ;-)

    JJT March 11, 2008, 7:22 pm
  • Yes, yes, got my East and West mixed up. Still, the crackhouse and rats tell me it didn’t matter where I lived – I was glad to be home by 8pm.

    A YF March 11, 2008, 9:36 pm
  • Thanks JJT. I realized it was 88 this afternoon, and hadn’t punched in the correction there yet.

    YF March 11, 2008, 10:34 pm
  • go hops!

    SF March 12, 2008, 1:32 pm
  • Uh, I didn’t type that. Who did?

    SF March 12, 2008, 4:22 pm
  • A couple of fact checks:
    Oriole Park opened in 1992.
    The satellite photo you have is outdated. There is a YMCA and I believe senior housing on that site now. Not a fantastic use of such a large parcel of land from a community development standpoint, but not exactly a pile of dirt, either.

    O's fan March 12, 2008, 6:01 pm
  • // A couple of fact checks:
    Oriole Park opened in 1992.
    The satellite photo you have is outdated. There is a YMCA and I believe senior housing on that site now. Not a fantastic use of such a large parcel of land from a community development standpoint, but not exactly a pile of dirt, either. //
    Beat me to it. Google Maps is a handy tool, but its images are sometimes several years old. The Stadium site has been redeveloped for going on three years now.
    One more:
    The Preakness is more likely to move to Laurel than Pigtown.

    Chris March 12, 2008, 10:23 pm

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