Antero Pietila: Panhandler city becomes new latte central

Opinion,Antero Pietila

After more than a decade of dreams and false starts, Baltimore finally welcomes its own Bryant Park. I am referring to the plaza between City Hall and the War Memorial Building, which has emerged from a $1.5 million redesign with beautiful fountains and inviting bistro tables and chairs. As part of this face-lift, the city moved the homeless, mentally ill and dysfunctional who camped there to a park next to St. Vincent de Paul church a few blocks away.

The real Bryant Park abuts the New York Public Library headquarters at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, of course. For decades, it existed as an unsightly gathering place for the detritus of life. But in the 1990s, planners reclaimed the park and turned it into a lunchtime and after-work oasis, where appetites are satisfied and romance blossoms. It was so successful that Bryant Park emerged as an urban revitalization icon.

More is to come in Baltimore. Center Plaza, a 3-acre courtyard at Charles Center, is in the midst of a $6 million reconstruction. Once that is completed in a few weeks, another gathering place for panhandlers will be reborn as a lush urban oasis. Latte anyone?

That is not all. Our Daily Bread soup kitchen will soon be removed from a site next to the Cathedral and relocated to a new complex along Fallsway, near the Maryland Penitentiary. The move upsets many homeless activists.

They think that Our Daily Bread belongs next to the landmark of American Roman Catholicism ? and the archbishop?s residence ? as a reminder of the society?s failure to deal with the disadvantaged. The activists don?t want to hear about problems street people cause at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where they nod in reading rooms, use restrooms for washing or exhibit disruptive behavior. Those problems, the advocates argue, are consequences of the larger society?s failures and callousness. To hell with the sensitivities of more privileged. Let them spray deodorant!

I sympathize with those arguments, but they are self-defeating and wrongheaded. Public order justifies ? and demands ? the removal of antisocial elements from prestige places, if threatening behavior cannot be controlled otherwise. If Paris and Venice can protect their symbols, why not Baltimore?

As an agent provocateur, I even offer the following thought: The real money and power exist in the suburbs. Why not send the homeless to some of the leading suburban churches to jolt citizens? conscience?

I remember that housing activists did exactly that decades ago. They sent black protesters to the cathedral-like Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Towson, disturbing not only white worshippers? peace of mind but threatening the plentiful Sunday collections of that religious money machine. In no time flat, the Catholic hierarchy persuaded the target of protests, a recalcitrant landlord, to settle his dispute and get rid of the pickets.

The kind of cleansing of public places that is taking place in Baltimore signals that the municipal authorities have borrowed a page from the playbook of Harborplace and other privately operated tourist magnets, which do not tolerate antisocial behavior. As panhandler city becomes lattecentral, the situation can be tricky.

I was reminded of that the other day while visiting Lexington Market. Because of an Orioles game that particular afternoon, mostly white out-of-town visitors mobbed Faidley?s Seafood and other food vendors. Meanwhile, a blues band performed in a nearby space to a crowd that was predominantly black and definitely not part of the latte generation. This split personality could have been a clash of cultures, but it wasn?t, because no disorderly behavior was tolerated.

As the gentrification of Baltimore?s public places continues, Lexington Market will prove a test case. Its managers understand that new nearby apartment buildings and cultural facilities will alter their longtime client mix. Instead of hog maws and chitlings, people want bagels, gourmet coffees and fine wines. Lexington Market is actively trying to recruit vendors to satisfy such needs.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped the Baltimore metropolitan area. Contact him at
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