Filling the Void on Howard Street Baltimore

A Study of Emptiness and Finding Purpose Along Baltimore City’s Historic Corridor


Once a vibrant and busy destination, Howard Street now functions simply as a means for passage through, into, and out of Baltimore City. By intimately studying the blocks between Fayette and Monument Streets, one might catch brief glimpses of the lively street that once was. Most of what’s left standing today, however, tells a rather unfortunate story of a neglected and forgotten corridor. Borrowing from the processes outlined by urban theorists before me, I have used various systems to evaluate the physical form as well as the expressive essence of Howard Street. From such vigorous analyses, I have identified a combination of grounds for explanation as to why the corridor is, or is not, functioning in its current form.

As a Baltimore County resident, I often use the light rail line to travel into the city. As it enters Baltimore’s central neighborhoods, the light rail settles into the Howard Street right-of-way. In my years of riding, I have developed a sort of fondness for one stop in particular. At the corner of Howard Street and Centre street, the light rail drops its passengers off a few blocks west of Mount Vernon, just south of the Cultural Center, one stop north of Lexington Market, and nearby to downtown Baltimore. Yet it was never because of this stop’s close proximity to such amenities that drew me in; it was likely more about the adjacent park, or perhaps the fact that this particular light rail stop always had a sense of stillness to it, that I took the opportunity to step off the train. From the intersection at Monument Street, just north of the Centre Street light rail stop, down to the next light rail stop on the 100 block at Fayette, Howard Street has a very distinct character. My study of the corridor encompasses these six blocks, with heavy focus on the three northernmost blocks from Mulberry to Monument. Systems of evaluation- such as Kevin Lynch’s visual mapping; Emily Talen’s approach to transect classification; the Venturi and Scott Brown system of signs and symbols; and indeed Anne Whiston Spirn’s study of nature within the city- shall provide an opportunity to peel back the layers of the city to reveal the fundamental nature of Howard Street.

An Area of Historical Relevance

Howard Street, Looking North at Lexington; Photo Credit: Baltimore County Public Library Legacy Web

The light rail line, providing access to and from the county, makes Howard Street a significant transportation corridor. Combined with the Saratoga Street Metro Station, Howard Street is the link between Baltimore City and the larger Baltimore Metropolitan Region. To many, however, Howard Street’s significance lay not in its transportation roles, but in the rich history it possesses. City residents know Howard Street for the stories that have been passed down about its grand department stores and thriving theaters of the 1870s, as well as for the Lexington Market just one block to the west. Howard Street was a destination for city and county residents alike. People from all over would arrive at Howard Street for the stores found there. Meanwhile, the Academy of Music, Stanley Theater, and Natatorium (which would later become the Mayfair Theatre in 1941) were all located just a few blocks north between Franklin and Centre Streets, a block which grew into a major theatrical complex. Here, well known actors and actresses performed, such as Katharine Hepburn, who began her career in the Natatorium (Gunts 1993). The Natatorium was transformed into Kernan’s Howard Street Auditorium after a man named James Lawrence Kernan bought the property in the 1890s. Mr. Kernan not only operated the theater, but owned an additional building on the block which functioned as the Congress Hotel. This block became known as Kernan’s Corner.

The department stores and theaters have since shut down; only the Market continues to operate today (at 230 years old, it is the longest running market in the world), but fading signage lingers as a reminder of what once was. The evolution, or perhaps decline, happened slowly throughout the twentieth century as the corridor was altered little by little. In the 1930s, even amidst the Great Depression, Howard street was still a robust, and vibrant destination. Howard Street at Lexington was, at the time, a major intersection and in 1934, Read’s Drug Store was constructed on the southeast corner. Twenty-one years later, in 1955, Read’s would be the site of an early sit-in of the civil rights movement, which has since given Howard Street profound social significance.[1] Five years before the well known Greensboro sit-in, a group of Morgan State University students made a powerful statement when they organized a successful protest at the Read’s Drug Store lunch counter (Pousson 2011).

Read’s Drug Store on Howard Street; Photo Source: Baltimore Heritage Website

While Howard Street was doing well during these years so, too, was the automobile which made traveling outside the city an efficient alternative. With this convenience, the new shopping malls were able to flourish. As more and more city residents traveled to the outskirts of Baltimore to shop in these new malls, Howard Street became less and less relevant, yet managed to remain economically stable. In 1942, the Greyhound Bus Terminal was built at Howard and Centre Street (Vandervoort n.d.). Howard Street was to be enhanced by a new bus route, a future that was never realized. This building still stands today and is part of the Maryland Historical Society’s campus. The Maryland Transit Administration entered the picture in the 1980s with the introduction of the light rail line. Although it provided an inexpensive means for residents to travel within and around the city, there has been a general consensus that the transportation “improvements” of the light rail have been the main cause of Howard Street’s demise.

The Remaining Architecture

The booming activity of old Howard Street may be gone, but the physical form remains. Many of the buildings which directly front the street retain architectural details that can so rarely be found on buildings constructed after the 19th century. Sadly, behind these magnificent facades, the buildings crumble in disrepair. Like the Mayfair, whose roof collapsed in the 1990s, these buildings sit as abandoned shells, waiting for the next tenant to come along and embrace their history; but it’s been years since anyone’s seemed interested. While people have all but forgotten, nature has slowly begun the process of reclaiming the land upon which these buildings sit. A future similar to the one explored by author Alan Weisman in his book, The World Without Us, is developing before our eyes. As human activity continues to neglect the few blocks surrounding Kernan’s Corner, nature- as I’ll soon explain- finds new ways to make its presence known. 

 Methodology for Deeper Appreciation

Although I have been to Howard Street many times before, I had never delved so deeply into its story as I did upon my initial study visit. During this trip, I utilized photo documentation and visual mapping techniques, in conjunction with notations of any emotions felt along the way, to document the corridor. The goal was to be truly within Howard Street’s fabric as opposed to just passing through it, as too many people often do. Traveling a total of ten blocks between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Baltimore Street, I made a point to patronize local establishments and talk to any willing passerby. The subsequent visit entailed a much more elaborate process of evaluation, which proved to illustrate very interesting results.

A Collection of Urban Study Methodologies

Equipped with map and pen, I explored Howard Street through Kevin Lynch’s system of spatial mapping. Recognizing key nodes along the corridor proved simple, as there were very clearly defined areas of activity- often around the light rail stops, and certainly around Lexington Market. Landmarks were difficult to distinguish as very few literal monuments exist. Instead, identifiable and recognizable buildings- such as the Market, Hutzler’s department store, Read’s Drug Store, and the Greyhound Terminal- served to orient me along the way. Barriers were abundant due to the excessive presence of fences near Kernan’s Corner, as well as vast sections of unusable space formed by entire blocks of vacant buildings. An obvious north-south pathway was facilitated by the movement of the light rail train (although automobile traffic on Howard was minor), and certain cross streets had notably heavier traffic flows than others in the east-west directions. During my visit, I made quick notations of the presence of people and the coinciding activities along the way. The portion of Howard Street closest to Lexington Market was the most active, while my observation of population was lowest near Kernan’s Corner, where most of the vacant buildings are situated. Beginning with the most active section at the Lexington cross street and moving north towards Monument, the density of Howard Street gradually shifts downward. This transition seems to exemplify Emily Talen’s system of transect zones, if only as micro-transects of the ‘urban center transect’ classification. From the larger, high-rise structures between Fayette and Lexington all the way up to the three to four story buildings by Monument Street, the corridor transitions from a highly active district to a vacant and abandoned section of blocks. Although merely an observation, the identification of these conditions may prove useful when considering the future of Howard Street.

Very little that exists on Howard Street is consistent from Monument to Fayette. Street art, however, is surprisingly abundant along the entire stretch. These images carry heavy messages, which make them particularly intriguing. As I was studying one of the first pieces I encountered, I paused photographing so as to greet a passerby. The man said hello, continued walking to the opposite end of the block, then reversed course with extreme purpose. He marched back to where I stood to ask me why I would photograph this image which he didn’t find to be especially alluring. I’m very glad he decided to speak with me, for our long discussion of art proved quite enjoyable and as testimony of art’s power to bring strangers together. Art, much like the iconography and symbols discussed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, punctuates the public space of the corridor as a response to the everyday life of the city. As Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour had done with the signage and graphic elements of the Las Vegas strip, I photographed and cataloged the street art and faded iconography along Howard Street. Plywood covered storefronts proved to be the most inviting canvases for street art, as the highest percentage of art was found on the blocks with the most vacant buildings. Whether it altered the environment for better or worse seems to be a matter of personal preference, as I noted from my conversation with the passerby, but its presence is certainly noticed.

 A most exciting study of Howard Street came from my consideration of nature in the city. My evaluation was based on Anne Whiston Spirn’s belief that nature helps to determine how meaningful a place may be. In my investigation, I paid particular attention to nature as it specifically pertains to plant life. When observing an open space inventory of Baltimore City as a whole, patches of green speckle the map save for the area within which Howard Street rests (Baltimore 2010). The only green spaces along this portion of the road are Howard’s Park, directly across from the old Greyhound Terminal[2]. Outside of Howard’s Park, nature has been left to fend for itself. Where street trees once stood, empty wells mark the  graves of fallen allies. These empty tree wells have sometimes been filled with asphalt, as if to ensure anything that lives can never grow there again. Occasionally, perhaps in an attempt to conceal this atrocious behavior, flower pots have been set on top of these asphalt-filled, empty tree wells. My investigation included counting the total number of tree wells on each block, and how many of them were actually filled with street trees. I discovered that the blocks with the most vacant buildings were also those with the fewest occupied tree wells. I determined that 17% of the tree wells on the 400 block from Franklin to Mulberry were empty, and an astonishing 62% of the tree wells between Mulberry and Saratoga were barren. In addition to street trees (or lack thereof), I identified any instance where nature proved more resourceful than humans had accounted for. It is not the property-owners of the northern blocks that have claimed ownership of the land, it’s the land itself that has declared possession. In these warm March days, hearty and verdant weeds have already begun to seep from the cracks in the pavement. Even the asphalt filled wells couldn’t keep nature from persevering: mature trees had found their way into abandoned buildings and now escape through gaps in the boarded-up windows and out onto rooftops. The six blocks between Monument and Fayette Streets account for a total length of approximately 2,513 feet. Along this stretch of Howard Street, there is an average of about one tree for every 40 feet. Not nearly enough, in my personal opinion. 

Other systems of observation were less fruitful. The study area lacked many of the layers that would define any of the elements architect Christopher Alexander might identify as terminology of a pattern language. Certainly this lack of patterns, however, contributes to the area’s absent vitality. Hierarchy of spaces can be experienced close to the Market, but on the northern blocks the space is void. As I review my findings from the various systems of evaluation, I find reinforcement of the intuitive perception that it is the absence of a number of systems which make certain environments less productive.

 A Strange Sense of Place

Oddly enough, however, the total absence of layers is also what contributes to the haven-like atmosphere of the northern blocks. The two blocks between Mulberry and Centre lack nearly all layers of environmental character, including people. Deserted spaces in cities usually connote an unsafe territory, yet these blocks have just the right amount of people riding by on the light rail and walking past on their trips to the area’s various attractions that the blocks offer safe solitude for any urbanite in search of refuge. How peculiar it is to be in a dense urban setting without all the commotion of frenzied city life!?

Future Study and Final Thoughts

The element of life, both human and natural, is an important assessment of a location’s well being. Had I more time to study this portion of Howard Street, I would take a cyclical approach. I would consider changes of the natural seasons and note how they may or may not shape the level of pedestrian activity. Such an analysis should be continued for a span of many years, and should be critical of the ways in which human behavior is altered by any changes in environment. There is also potential for more normative, detailed statistical research on the tree canopy of the area and about the life stages of the trees on each block. This data could be compared with that of Baltimore City as a whole. By further developing a study of life as it exists on Howard Street, overlays of information illustrate an urban environments success and failure.

Today, Howard Street struggles, yet it works. It works as an exhibit of sorts through which someone might stroll to discover something new about their city, or themselves. The unfortunate truth, however, is that although these crumbling facades paint a picture of the exciting corridor that Howard Street had once been, their symptoms of disrepair also warn of a disastrous future.


 

Bibliography

Baltimore, Downtown Partnership of. “Downtown Open Space Plan.” Baltimore, MD, 2010.

Bejgrowicz, Tom. “Tom B Photography.” Blogspot. May 31, 2009. http://tombphotography.blogspot.com/2009/05/mayfair-theater-i-balt.html (accessed March 9, 2012).

Gunts, Edward. “Mayfair Could Anchor ‘Avenue of the Arts’.” The Baltimore Sun. November 4, 1993. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-11-04/news/1993308101_1_mayfair-center-for-theater-towson (accessed March 9, 2012).

Pousson, Eli. “Why the West Side Matters: Read’s Drug Store and Baltimore’s Civil Rights Heritage.” Baltimore Heritage. January 7, 2011. http://www.baltimoreheritage.org/2011/01/why-the-west-side-matters-reads-drug-store-and-baltimores-civil-rights-heritage/ (accessed March 9, 2012).

Vandervoort, Bill. Classic Bus Stations. http://web.me.com/willvdv/chirailfan/greystne.html (accessed March 9, 2012).


[1] A majority of this information has been gathered from personal discussions and general inquiries. Further research is required for verification.

[2] The study also identifies the Metro Station plaza as open space on the map, although this hardly accounts for any green space.

The above text is from a written report describing the conditions along Howard Street, Baltimore through use of the methods proposed by various urban theorists. It was an assignment from an Urban Design Studio course in Morgan State University’s City and Regional Planning Graduate program.

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