April 10, 2007
PIGTOWN: PIGS ON THE WING
Baltimore's revitalization has been fueled almost completely by the automobile. That's good news, because if we had been waiting around for a decent transit system to arrive, we would still be waiting.
Bolton Hill was the role model. Bolton Hillions totally kicked the MTA out of their neighborhood several decades ago. More recently, it has not been surprising that the outer inner city revitalization of Canton has relied almost completely on cars.
More surprising has been the recent residential boom in Mount Vernon, which has been accomplished with pretty much the same old auto-dominated traffic patterns and the same old transit system. Mount Vernon has attracted a new breed of residents who appear to be able to live with all that while still enjoying the neighborhood's other attributes.
The biggest victim of the auto status quo has been downtown, where the same old transit system has created a glass ceiling for vehicular access. In cities such as New York and Chicago, downtown office development has been able to proceed pretty much to infinity because a good transit system feeds on itself. As transit gets more popular, the impetus increases to make it even better. But in downtown Baltimore, on the other hand, office development has become virtually stagnant, consisting mainly of image-sensitive firms moving to larger and fancier digs but without a net employment increase - only more floor space and more parking space.
Despite this, downtown has followed Mount Vernon's lead in attracting new residential growth. Downtown residents largely seem to be able to get by without decent transit. Many can walk to work or they "reverse commute", taking advantage of the fact that the highways into downtown have reached the bottleneck saturation point in only one direction.
This begs the question: What areas of Baltimore are best poised to take greatest advantage of our seemingly futile inability to create a first-rate urban transit system? What areas are best able to deliver all the expected urban amenities, along with good automobile access, but without decent transit?
My first answer is Outer Pigtown - that area of Southwest Baltimore generally bounded by Washington Boulevard to the north, Monroe Street to the west, Russell Street to the south and Ostend Street to the east.
Outer Pigtown has just enough great architecture, charm and urban grit to pull this off, all wrapped up in a very non-threatening automobile-accessible package close to Interstate 95, 395 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
The two photos above are of Gaslight Square, one of the pioneers of Outer Pigtown, built around a combination of Victorian and newer buildings and postmodern industrial chic attitude. That big garish sign that hovers over the parking lot is functionally no different from signs on the most banal suburban strips, but it is evidently considered sufficiently tasteful for this particular urban context.
Buildings in Outer Pigtown tend to be big, and are surrounded by big parking lots, big open yards and expendable infill buildings and shacks. This will no doubt encourage big-time developers to come in and do their thing, such as Trammel Crow which is the developer for Gaslight Square.
A little bit of great architecture goes a long way, which is also fortunate because if bad architecture was as serious a problem as architectural critics seem to believe, cities like Baltimore would have given up years ago. Outer Pigtown has just enough great buildings to create a memorable theme and identity.
Pigtown also has a name. Misguided people have tried to call it Washington Village and have tried to divorce it from Outer Pigtown by giving the latter such names as Camden Industrial Park and Carroll Industrial Park and Carroll-Camden Industrial Park.
Such names completely miss the point of the role of old urban industrial areas in the post-industrial era. First of all, the term "industrial park" is far too generic for any area with as much history and legacy as Outer Pigtown. The term "industrial park" implies a sterile homogeneous area set aside for industry, safely separated from where people live, because industry is just considered too dirty and unsafe to be anywhere near neighborhoods.
But industry in the postmodern era is not any dirtier than the rest of the city, and in fact may be cleaner because unsupervised humans tend to befoul their environment more than highly regulated image-conscious industry does. And safety? What's so safe about all those residential areas in a City known for its murder rate.
Moreover, who is to say what constitutes industry anymore? Anyone who wants to be in a big sprawling building is a potential market for a place like Outer Pigtown.
Nowadays, industry is more of an icon than anything else. The postmodern world is fueled by icons. Ever since the mid-70s when Pink Floyd put a big imposing "iconic" industrial building on the cover of their "Animals" album and put a flying pig on top of it, industry has meant much more. Pink Floyd had been a pioneer of industrial music with the song "Welcome to the Machine" on the album before, built on a synthesized beat of gurgling factory sounds of the type that would later become more popularized by bands like Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails.
So while residential Pigtown is named after agricultural pigs squealing down the streets on their way to being slaughtered, industrial Pigtown conjures up flying pigs, surrealistic images created by the alchemical stew of postmodern industry.
Hidden away in an industrial building in nearby Morrell Park, there is a place called Orion Sound Studio which is a world-class incubator for progressive rock music - creating the Pink Floyds of the 21st century. That is the kind of activity that is attracted to postmodern urban industrial space. It is activity that is part of the natural organic evolution that makes cities interesting.
But there is a competing vision for Outer Pigtown that emerges from time to time. Several years ago, there a proposal was made to wipe out virtually all of Outer Pigtown to build a new horse racing track to replace Pimlico. This has got to be one of the most spectacularly stupid and destructive proposals ever for any place in the City of Baltimore. It is one of those ideas that is so incredibly stupid that most people have not taken it seriously, and its proponents have spoken of it only sporadically. This lack of exchange has allowed the idea to fester quietly rather than to be shot down with the certain finality that it deserves.
Flying pigs do not rely on mass transit, but they do rely on the overall health of the surrounding areas. This is where Outer Pigtown should shine. The revitalization of residential Inner Pigtown is well in progress. The Middle Branch waterfront across Russell Street from Outer Pigtown should succeed as well, especially if they can get rid of that crazy Greyhound Bus Terminal that sits there incongruously.
Then there is the grandiose vision for the Middle Branch waterfront of Westport, just to the south. Westport will need a massive infusion of investment in both buildings and infrastructure to fulfill its high density vision. Unlike Outer Pigtown, it must also rely on the fact that it sits at the very best situated light rail transit station along the entire system.
Westport is a great vision, which should ultimately propel it forward, but Outer Pigtown should be able to benefit from this vision far more quickly. Outer Pigtown will be the lower density support area for both Westport and Pigtown, where developers and entrepreneurs can come in and invest on their own achievable terms, getting in on the ground floor of a market that has virtually no limits.
Eventually, that environment for development should even touch the massive headquarters of the Maryland Transit Administration, whose bus maintenance facility is located in the largest, best located and most historic collection of buildings in all of Outer Pigtown. The pictures above and below show the MTA complex from Carroll Park. This is the perfect location for almost anything except a bus maintenance facility.
So the future of Outer Pigtown is bright indeed, and we don't even need a great transit system to achieve it. We just need to keep the horses away from the pigs.