Nothing new with Old Town Mall

12 photos

Old Town Mall in East Baltimore is a centuries-old commercial district that has lived through periods of booming growth, recession and renewal. Once a shining example of urban revitalization, it has since largely fallen into disrepair, with more than half of the buildings standing vacant. We delve into the history of the neighborhood, and what may come in its next chapter.

This is Part 2 in a two-part series about Old Town Mall. See Part 1.

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A group of five teens saunters down the center of East Baltimore’s Old Town Mall, a once-vibrant two block stretch that now sits largely abandoned. One, shirtless, picks a brown beer bottle off the ground and lobs it across the walkway toward a boarded-up shop. Falling short of the building, it shatters on the brick pavers, immediately blending in with the faded fast food wrappers and broken glass that already litter the walkway.

“Hey! Respect your community,” Robert Holmes, a former property owner in Old Town Mall shouts at the teen.

The boy shrugs, mumbling that he didn’t do anything

Holmes turns to his friend, Belford Elsey, shaking his head, “Can you believe that? We would have never.”

Holmes and Elsey, both 60, remember the pedestrian mall along Gay Street for what it once was: a prospering community of diverse business owners; the main street of activity in a bustling neighborhood; the kind of place that politicians not only paid attention to, but bragged about to their peers in other cities.

But in recent years Old Town Mall appears to be frozen in time. Caught up in redevelopment plans that have failed to come to fruition, its buildings are a time warp of Civil War-era and art deco architecture. Sixty-six percent of the buildings stand vacant; though wandering through the largely deserted mall it’s a wonder any business is able to stay open amid so much blight.

LOOKING BACK

Throughout the 1800s, Old Town was a diverse middle-class neighborhood whose residents spanned socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The close proximity to the city’s center made it an ideal place for families and downtown workers to live. Merchants set up shop along Gay Street, bolstered by the Belair Market, which attracted farmers from as far away as Pennsylvania. For more than a century, the Old Town area thrived – a textbook example of turn of the century urban life.

By the 1940s, the appeal of newer homes in the suburbs set off a wave of urban flight that devastated the community. In quick order, Old Town’s population plummeted and it became one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. The loss of a customer base dealt a blow to business owners along Gay Street. Though most still made enough money to keep their doors open, little was left to maintain their crumbling properties.

“Old Town’s shops have grown shabby, its streets are dirty and crowded, and its houses are dilapidated and appear to be leaning on one another for support,” wrote Sun reporter Jane L. Keidel in 1967.

Fueled largely by federal money, urban renewal plans were set into motion that would improve hundreds of homes in the neighborhood and turn a two-block stretch of Gay Street into a chic shopping district.

The 400 and 500 blocks were closed off to vehicles to create a pedestrian mall. Brick pavers replaced the roadway, and large planters, glass-globed street lamps and trees helped breathe life into the strip. A fountain was installed in the middle of the mall, next to an iconic art-deco-style digital clock tower emblazoned with the words “Old Town Mall.”

The renovations signified a renewed hope for the impoverished community, and government officials from across the country praised the project. Residents and business owners largely welcomed the changes, eager for the good fortunes they hoped would follow.

“Good things are happening in Old Town,” one newspaper article read. “As business activities increase, so may upward mobility, as in days long ago.”

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LEFT BEHIND

For several years, the Old Town Mall renewal was considered a success. The surrounding community used the mall as its center point, retailers had a steady stream of customers and young men and women worked their first jobs at Old Town shops.

But it didn’t stay that way for long. By the late-1980s, the area again began to slide into disrepair. Drug trafficking was on the rise and economic woes plagued the community. Though the renovations had fixed the appearance of Old Town, nothing had been done to tackle the unemployment and poverty.

“The living conditions have gotten worse when you get right down to it,” resident George Roy told The Sun in 1988. “People in the neighborhood just don’t have jobs.”

In 1995, the city tore down six high-rise housing projects south of the Mall, to be replaced with safer, low-rise units. Thousands of residents were displaced while the city rebuilt – and many never returned. Such a sharply eroded customer base was devastating to the already struggling businesses that remained.

“Once the projects was gone, can’t nothing survive,” said Elsey. “It was almost impossible. As soon as they fell, the 7-11 fell, the McDonald’s fell, lots of businesses in Old Town fell. It really hurt.”

As the years wore on, storefronts along the mall shuttered one by one, leaving behind decaying buildings that only suggest what wares were once peddled. Today you’ll find a faded awning that reads “Seif’s.” A painted brick wall, weather-worn and barely visible, advertises A&P market. The Kaufman’s department store sign has probably held up the best – it’s bold white lettering looming over metal security doors with rusting padlocks.

The city has tried for more than a decade to lure a major grocer into the area, a solution that would not only help the foot traffic around the mall, but also the limited access to healthy foods in the neighborhood. A few times they’ve come close – even demolishing Belair Market to make way for a parking lot. Invariably, the grocer backed out.

“I think grocery is an extremely competitive field and the stores have very thin margins,” said Kristen Mitchell, Senior Economic Development Officer at Baltimore Development Corporation. “They do their analysis of what sites make sense and it’s a pretty high bar to get one to come.”

BDC believes the area has potential, and continues to work with a developer in hopes of attracting a retailer, Mitchell said.

While businesses wait and see if a grocer will ever sign on, they sit in limbo. Some carry hope that revitalization is around the corner. Others have grown jaded and say they would move if they could afford it – which given the empty mall doesn’t look likely any time soon.

For more on Old Town Mall:
Sept. 25, 2012 – Photographing Old Town Mall by James Singewald, The Baltimore Sun
July 21, 2003 - Old Town Mall waits for rescue after years of decline, The Baltimore Sun
Oct. 9, 2002 - Is Redevelopment Finally Coming to Oldtown Mall?, City Paper
 July 4, 2001 – Old Town celebrates its survival with Block Party, The Baltimore Sun
Dec. 30, 2000 – Sign of mall’s tough times, The Baltimore Sun
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