Just a few weeks after a moribund mall montage, I’m back, despite the fact that these photo-heavy articles take forever and a day to create. But I can’t resist: like the Midtown Mall in Worcester, this retrograde retail ruin gets little coverage. It’s not a conventional suburban mall—it’s an urban setting, and, also like Midtown, it doesn’t show evidence that it ever hosted any real anchor tenants. (Ostensibly it once featured a Kaufman’s department store, which now operates as a seasonal attraction—the October season, if you get my drift. But I saw no buildings of the sort of size that would constitute an anchor store.) Also like Midtown, it’s in dire straits: probably in even worse condition overall—certainly a higher vacancy rate. But it’s even less of a real mall than Midtown. It’s a reminder of an almost universally failed attempt to bring retail back to urban shopping corridors in the late 1970s and early 80s. It’s a daylighted version of Midtown.
What am I referring to? None other than the Old Town Mall in Baltimore—an unequivocal failed attempt to turn a struggling commercial corridor into a pedestrian mall.
Judging from the stylistic flourishes in that logo, it’s safe to assume this pedestrian mall peaked at least thirty-five years ago. A basic familiarity of urban revitalization tactics substantiates this. In the late 1970s, when it was clear that malls had almost universally (and, from the perspective of that time, had permanently) overtaken downtowns as the de facto shopping destination, city leadership often sought increasingly costly and elaborate means of attempting to reorient the population to the flagging city centers. Baltimore’s Gay Street, veering northeasterly from its source at the Inner Harbor, once served as a spine to a densely packed neighborhood, as the remarkably good history of the area on the Nevermore Haunt website (the haunted house linked above) can attest. The city had existed less than a century when the Bel Air Market, just a mile from downtown, helped affirm Gay Street’s commercial function. As mass suburbanization seized the collective consciousness of the American middle class after World War II, Gay Street and the surrounding neighborhood suffered heavily. The Old Town neighborhood became synonymous with inner-city poverty.
By the late 1960s, the City of Baltimore invested in the corridor by essentially replicating the features that had attracted customers and capital to enclosed shopping malls: designers pedestrianized and paved two lengthy hypotenuse blocks of Gay Street with bricks, installed fountains, a clock tower and all the requisite branding that christened it “Old Town Mall”. Apparently the opening a few years later attracted national attention: it became the nation’s first inner-city neighborhood mall. The majority of the old commercial buildings attracted tenants to fill those first floor storefronts, even if the upper levels remained vacant.
Anyone familiar with American urban history could probably guess the next chapter, if my photo hadn’t already given it away. The Old Town Mall’s glory days might have lasted half of a decade: as The Dark Room (a photoblog courtesy of The Baltimore Sun) can attest, the tenants began vacating concurrent with a return of violent crime, vandalism and arson. By the mid 1980s, little evidence remained of the public investment. Three decades later, after numerous redevelopment proposals, the pedestrian mall sits in seemingly permanent limbo.
Based on my estimates during an August visit, these two (technically three) blocks of Gay Street could claim three operational stores, in a space that at one time probably hosted close to one hundred. Granted, these pictures come from a Sunday, the day businesses tend to scale back their hours, or to remain closed altogether. But virtually all American malls operate on Sundays between noon and 6 pm, the most successful of which do brisk business during that time. At Old Town Mall, basically nothing is open at 4:30. Here’s one of the few brave souls:I particularly like that it features a sandwich board out front; the proprietor apparently deduced that he or she needed something else to stand out. As people look down Gay Street, a sandwich board flags that establishment as operative, even from a great distance. Even better that the sandwich board says “GRAND OPENING”. Judging from the comparatively good condition of the sign, the pharmacy just to the left might also remain in business but was closed that day; it does, after all, have an active phone number listed online. (I tried the number; no answer.) Obviously, most of the other awnings indicate that the lights are off at those establishments 24/7.
Here’s another business that appears to be surviving.
Not open that day, but barbershops rarely are. It clearly features all the trappings of an operative storefront through the window. The sign, it appears, is nothing more than a plastic or vinyl banner; notice how it puckers at the corners. This is probably a wise decision: why invest money in a sophisticated sign, when it won’t make a difference? Isn’t the very fact that the lights are on a strong enough indicator that the place is a functioning business? The sign merely reaffirms the establishment’s name. Also, notice the upper floors at this and most other businesses:Completely boarded up. And, in some cases, the plywood itself appears to be rotting, like the storefront with “NO SHOOT ZONE” sprayed on the metal gate. This condition commonly characterizes even urban settings with revitalized main streets: all the activity concentrates exclusively on the street level, while the upper floors remain underutilized at best. In cases where the buildings are as far gone as Old Town Mall, it’s hard not to wonder if these barbershops and convenience stores face legitimate safety threats due to the decrepitude of the floors above them. Vermin would likely be a problem, at the very least.
Old Town Mall is rough. But I’ll make a few concessions. At least it remains overwhelmingly populated with buildings. The gaps in the street wall are few and far between. Here’s one:But it’s an exception to the rule, since most buildings abut one another.And in cases like the photo above, the façades look surprisingly intact, given the overall level of decay and neglect. The Sunnybook Child Care Center might not have a phone number anymore, but the condition of the sign suggests that it was operative within the last year. Some façades even look recently restored, if mothballed. Notice the cornice on the one to the right; it received a careful repainting in recent months.
Of course, elsewhere along the mall, the upper floors haven’t fared so well:The absence of a metal gate suggests that these buildings aren’t in any operable condition. But they remain intact.
Most of the structures at Old Town Mall follow a pattern in their width, typical of commercial buildings where all the structures average two to three stories.
But some defy the standard.
If any look capable of hosting a full-fledged Kaufman’s department store at one point, this is the one. But I still wouldn’t bank on it.The important distinguishing feature of Old Town Mall is the Keynesian stimulus the area received in the 1970s—something that many other blighted commercial corridors did not enjoy. Despite the fact that this segment of Gay Street benefited from huge investment, it looks just as forlorn all the others—all the commercial strips that have changed little since they last thrived around the Great Depression.
The pedestrian improvements are worthy of a closer look.Given the high maintenance needs for brick sidewalks—and the fact that Old Town Mall clearly receives none whatsoever—the walkways remain in reasonably good condition.
The area still features a few trashcans, though I suspect that each one of these round concrete plates used to host a receptacle at one point. The bollards appear to be holding their own.And, near the center of the revitalized stretch, a sort of plaza probably once hosted music and fountains. Now it’s a dumpsite and, I suspect, an open urinal.This before-and-after photo (with a sliding bar to aid the comparison) shows the elaborate array of amenities during Old Town Mall’s short-lived prosperity: shelters, planters, and those beloved 1970s globe-lights. Most of it is gone today. One other prominent gap in the continuous row of structures now ostensibly serves as a parking lot.
At least part of this area most likely once hosted the Bel Air Market, demolished over a decade ago.Now it’s just a vacant, weed-choked lot that serves as a reminder that Gay Street was at one point fully integrated with the surrounding street grid. But that’s just the unofficial lot. The actual parking for Old Town Mall is a stone’s throw away, on the other side of the short brick wall at this spot where Mott Street intersects Gay Street.Notice the Baltimore skyline through the trees. The heart of the city is probably only a twenty-minute walk away.
And about that surrounding area…it offers more than a few surprises. An distinctive high-rise apartment building offers some solid population density from its perch on the north end.
An unusual little obelisk stands at the foot of that building with the round apertures.And a block to the west, sharing Gay Street’s distinctive 45-degree angle, the residential Stirling Street offers a remarkably well-maintained landscape.I can’t help but wonder if these impeccable row homes received heavy public investment as a sort of accompanying revitalization initiative during the redevelopment of Old Town Mall. From looking at Sterling Street in isolation, you’d never know the extensive decay just a block away.One blogger noted that Stirling Street benefited from the City’s “original dollar historic homesteading”, an initiative that warrants further research, though odds are that this small strip of rowhouses remains among the few beneficiaries. The residents’ perseverance is remarkable, considering the impact such blight would have on property values, but perhaps they’re long-term investors, hoping that, eventually, Gay Street will get struck by the silver bullet that it needs.
In the meantime, the views are unremittingly bleak. Heading toward Gay Street’s south end, it doesn’t improve, even as the Baltimore skyline peaks out over the nearer structures.The prominent church is now a fire museum, a relatively common feature in some cities, often occupying a revitalized church or an outdated fire station.
At the far south end, we witness another wall banner.It’s in remarkably good condition, but I suspect it’s an oldie. The font used for “Old Town Mall” is Peignot, a classic illustrative typeface most popular in the 1980s. If the Peignot is any indication, this banner has held together amazingly well for at least thirty years. Perhaps it sat in storage for 90% of that time. Regardless, it clearly dates from a different era than the bulky signs that stand sentry at other various locations along the mall.
Not only is Old Town Mall a mere stone’s throw from downtown, it’s even closer to Mount Vernon Place, the Walters Art Museum, the Peabody Library, and several other storied Baltimore institutions. It sits on the wrong side of the Jones Falls Expressway—at this point a powerful dividing line between devastated working-class districts and the prominent uptown businesses that line the revitalized North Charles Street, which links downtown with Johns Hopkins University to the immediate north. Developers have floated various proposals that aim to restore Old Town Mall’s mixed-use character (including the upper floors of those commercial buildings), but nothing much has yet materialized.
Perhaps it’s a matter of when rather than if. Given the pace of urban restoration in key neighborhoods, usually most lucrative when they are close to downtowns, the real breakthrough for Old Town Mall may loom just on the horizon. It may take place with relatively little public-sector support. And it could end up injecting a vibrancy that Gay Street hasn’t witnessed in almost a century. After all, at this point, the area is so desolate that it doesn’t feel particularly unsafe during the day—all those wide open spaces left me clearly visible while taking these photos, and the opportunity for people to approach me by foot (really the only way) were few and far between. It’s completely neglected and not even lucrative to ne’er-do-wells.
The biggest question remains how long these buildings can linger before they start to crumble, and then to tumble. Perhaps, though, that’s the long-term legacy of the Old Town Mall investment: it helped delay the wrecking ball for an entire commercial corridor by thirty years—just enough time to allow the general public to catch up with historic preservationists’ love of classic, walkable main streets. Heck, at this point the public’s taste for urban pedestrian zones—always a rarity in the U.S.—might even enjoy a renaissance. Even amidst Baltimore’s current crime woes, I for one am optimistic.