When the owners of Phillips Seafood announced last week that they were leaving the Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace, the reaction was pretty universal: There goes the neighborhood.
Phillips is not only the big tourist-attraction anchor there; it’s also the last of the original Harborplace tenants. And their departure – even if they’re just moving eastward across the Inner Harbor to the former ESPN Zone property – is one more signal of change along the city of Baltimore’s commercial heart.
And, not necessarily change for the better.
When Harborplace opened three decades ago, it altered not only the appearance of downtown Baltimore, but also a city’s perception of itself: Look at us, the formerly homely girl, suddenly transformed into a beauty queen! Look at us, no longer self-effacingly calling ourselves the Queen City of the Patapsco River Drainage Basin. Now we could stop snickering when somebody referred to us as Charm City.
What’s more, Harborplace instantly changed out-of-towners’ perceptions of Baltimore. Against all previous odds, we were suddenly a tourist town and not just some blink of the eye between Washington and New York.
Harborplace was the heart of the new Baltimore. It drew millions of tourists and millions of dollars to bolster the city’s shaky tax base. Also, it let us puff out our chests a little. You walked through the place, and it reflected Baltimore as a lot of people wanted to see ourselves. No, it didn’t capture the town’s funkiness – but the shops and the restaurants and the abundant good cheer mirrored a kind of sweet Chamber of Commerce image of the hometown.
You walk through the place now and, with a few exceptions, you could be anywhere in America.
Only a handful of stores reflect Baltimore (two of them, strictly sports) and, of the others – well, there’s Life in Charm City, which sells tee shirts, sweatshirts, beachwear and Old Bay seasoning. Same as anywhere in America, only the name on the shirt’s been changed.
And there’s the Best of Baltimore store, whose big items include baseball caps that say, “I’m Crabby, Leave Me Alone,” tee shirts that say, “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Crabby,” and jars of little red candies. The candies are called Crab Poop.
Best of Baltimore, indeed.
But that’s not all. There are vacant spaces now where stores once did energetic business. (And it’s going to get worse before it gets any better, since Phillips is set to move in late September and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. isn’t expected to replace it until the following May. That’s a lot of empty space—about 13,000 square feet—for a lot of depressing time.) And there are all these national chain operations you can find almost anywhere.
Out-of-towners must look at this and ask themselves, “This is why we came to Baltimore? To eat at Subway? At Hooters? For this, we could have gone anywhere.”
Next time, they probably will.
Of course, there are outside attractions: the aquarium, the science center, the paddle boats for kids, the glorious look of the harbor on a sunny summer afternoon.
But the two Harborplace pavilions were the heart of downtown’s renaissance when its doors opened three decades ago. They gave city dwellers, and county residents whose hearts were still with the town, a sense of pride that had been lost through years of suburban flight and high crime and downtown deterioration.
Now Harborplace looks like a civic afterthought.
In its glory years, the Rouse Corporation ran the place. Now it’s run by the Chicago-based General Growth Properties, whose eye is strictly on the bottom line.
Several weeks ago, at the funeral of William Donald Schaefer, his friend Lainy LeBow-Sachs mentioned a long-ago afternoon when then-Mayor Schaefer strolled around Harborplace and noticed some of the flags there looking a little frayed.
“Call the Rouse Company,” he ordered.
There were new flags flying within 24 hours.
Now the fraying’s well beyond a few flags. Is there a mayor out there who’s noticing, and wants to exert a little muscle, before others join Phillips – and move away completely?