WE'VE GOT TO GET OURSELVES BACK TO THE PRESTON GARDENS
Before the Inner Harbor, and even before Charles Center, Baltimore's big glitzy downtown redevelopment area was Preston Gardens. Back then in the mid-20th century, it seemed that the planners thought that what the city needed most was a pretty face. So the theme of Preston Gardens was a very lovely green space that separated St. Paul Street into a lower and an upper road for five blocks between Centre and Lexington Streets.
In a downtown that was almost totally bereft of green space, this seemed like enough. Most of the new pre-Charles Center downtown construction ended up here, and the celebrated A. Aubrey Bodine documented each new building in his sumptuous black and white photography with Preston Gardens in the foreground.
To this day, the pretty photogenic face of Preston Gardens has been well preserved and its adjacent addresses have thrived, without boarded-up buildings or vacuous parking lots.
But Preston Gardens is not much of a park. And as a garden, Preston is no Eden. It's merely a backdrop or a foreground scene setter. Some office and hospital workers eat their lunch there and there is a small indigenous population that looks on and asks for spare change, but nothing that could be construed as vitality. There is not a hint of an urban community.
The first sign of corruption may have been in the 1930s when the Orleans Street Viaduct was built over Preston Gardens, bisecting it and interrupting the long sweeping continuity of the linear park. Pedestrians must either cross over to the other side of lower St. Paul and walk through a dark dank underpass, or else climb up to upper St. Paul and traverse two nasty intersections with traffic which has gained speed on either the expressway-like viaduct or down the steep Mulberry Street hill. In both directions, there are slalom S-curves that demand more of the motorists' attention than the presence of a few stray pedestrians.
The two intersections on upper St. Paul where the viaduct becomes Franklin and Mulberry Streets create a triangular space where Preston Gardens essentially ceases to exist, and this is by far the ugliest place in the area. A vista of the dome of the Basilica of the Assumption must compete with billboards (see photo above).
The above photo shows how the footway within Preston Gardens simply ends when it gets to the dark tunnel under the Orleans Viaduct.
Perhaps worst of all is the diagonal traffic chicane that was built to bisect the southern end of Preston Gardens to merge the upper and lower street traffic. This is the critical point where the park approaches the epicenter of downtown street activity, and the chicanery results in two triangular traffic islands (photo below) that render what is left of the park useless. The City often plants very beautiful flowers in these islands, but the beauty is only skin deep and can only be appreciated from afar, like through the windshield of a car.
Walking north from the Inner Harbor, Light Street traverses very the heart of downtown vitality as it becomes St. Paul at Baltimore Street. Two blocks later between Lexington and Saratoga where it enters Preston Gardens (shown above), it dies a sudden precipitous death.
So being pretty isn't everything. The young Joni Mitchell had a sweet pretty voice when she sang, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden." That didn't stop her from ruining her voice with cigarettes, but music critics still approve because she still sings the same old sweet message, only now with wise maturity. In the same way, we've got to get ourselves back to Preston Gardens.
The big current controversy is over one of the city's last remaining stands of grand early 19th century rowhouses, overlooking Preston Gardens (to the left in the photo above). Mercy Hospital wants to knock them down to expand the hospital. There used to be hundreds of these houses in the Preston Gardens area. Some of them were knocked down to build Preston Gardens itself. Many more were knocked down simply because there was no longer any community left to fight for their survival. They were replaced by big buildings and institutions like Mercy Hospital which related as well as possible to what Preston Gardens essentially had become - merely an attractive backdrop.
Therein is an important message for preservationists. To save historic buildings, just as to save any species, it is essential to save their habitat. Take away the habitat and the species will also disappear. There is no real neighborhood at Preston Gardens, so the houses have lost their habitat and their will to survive.
The battle to save those houses should have begun many years ago and encompassed a much larger area of focus. The clarion call should have been a larger and more intact block of similar rowhouses just to the north of Preston Gardens between Centre and Monument Streets (known as Waterloo Row) that was knocked down about 40 year ago for a parking lot. The Waterloo Apartments were eventually built on that site, and were designed to be oriented inward rather than toward the heavy and hazardous street traffic. (See the background of the photo above, just right of the street zigzag).
Since then, hardly anything has been done to improve the local habitat. Some 20 years ago, a design study recommended that the environment of Preston Gardens could be improved by shifting the heavier traffic stream from lower St. Paul onto upper St. Paul. This would have indeed made things better for lower St. Paul and would have allowed the green spaces to be redesigned with greater integrity. But the environment of upper St. Paul would have suffered. At the time, there were many more people and businesses on the upper than the lower street, so more people would have lost than gained from the switch. Thru traffic would have also suffered greatly because upper St. Paul requires the traversal of the two nasty intersections with Franklin, Mulberry and the Orleans Viaduct.
The key to improving the Preston Gardens environment is to examine traffic patterns over a much larger area. Traffic can be reduced on BOTH upper and lower St. Paul by diverting it to where it should be in the first place - the Jones Falls Expressway corridor between Guilford Avenue and Fallsway. There are many ways this can and should be accomplished, but two of them are:
- Closing the Jones Falls Expressway off-ramp to St. Paul Street, which now allows St. Paul to serve as a dumping ground for downtown bound motorists. A whole lane worth of traffic (out of three lanes total) could be eliminated from St. Paul by doing this. (See the BIS article on Penn Station ).
- Constructing the Greenmount-Belvidere Connector, which would intercept downtown oriented traffic from the northeast before it gets to St. Paul Street, and would instead feed it from Greenmount to the Jones Falls Corridor. (See BIS article on Mount Vernon-Belvidere).
Beyond that, these measures would greatly improve the St. Paul Street environment in the Mount Vernon, Station North and Charles Village communities farther upstream to the north, all of which suffer from the afflictions of too much traffic. St. Paul Street in all of these neighborhoods could be made quieter, cleaner, more civilized, and with more full-time on-street parking. All of these neighborhoods would be able to function more like neighborhoods, with environmental habitats that would be far better able to support their fine old homes.
If a truly cohesive community had been established at some point, the new Waterloo Apartments could have been oriented to infuse life onto the streets. Transit service could have been vitalized to reduce the overwhelming dependency on cars and parking - Preston Gardens would make a great transit mall. Many of the area's huge nasty parking garages, such as the one that looms over Waterloo on the other side of Calvert Street, may have never needed to be built. Reduced parking demand would have freed up much of the land now used for parking garages for more productive uses such as the currently contemplated Mercy Hospital expansion. The remaining historic houses would have then become so valuable, and would have been occupied by people who really treasure them, so that no one would have even thought of tearing them down.
In conclusion, the front line in the battle over preservation battles should be over neighborhoods, not individual buildings. Baltimore has thousands of historic houses all over the city that are being continually abused by neglect and disinvestment caused by bad traffic and transportation management, bad schools, bad crime, high taxes and other economic distortions and urban problems. The preservation battle to save these buildings is too late because their habitat is already lost.
Saving a few old houses on lower St. Paul Street will not make Preston Gardens any less dead, and forcing the houses to be kept against the will of their owner will not provide an incentive for the owner to maintain them. And retaining the facades while demolishing what is behind them would simply perpetuate the preservation of pretty but superficial Preston Garden facades.
But fixing the larger problems such as excessive traffic on St. Paul Street will allow the larger environment to function properly, saving whole communities instead of just a few houses.