May 31, 2009

Collington Avenue


A small "Crime Brief" in last Thursday's Sun describes a typical senseless shooting on the streets of Baltimore: "Butchers Hill man fatally shot near home Wednesday". Except technically, the man did not live, nor was he shot, in Butchers Hill. But I live in Butchers Hill so the story really stuck out for me.

Real estate agents often exaggerate boundaries of more popular neighborhoods to catch people's attention, so it seems plausible that a newspaper might do that too. Several of my neighbors caught the error and notified the Sun, which soon corrected the online version of the story, although this time they omitted the neighborhood from the headline. Seems that Middle East doesn't sell as well as Butchers Hill.

So what's in a neighborhood boundary? If it's the waterfront, the answer is fairly obvious, but any urban street can be imbued with perceptions that can change property values, racial composition and feelings of safety that become no less real. The street of the shooting, North Collington Avenue, is a classic case in point.

The unit block of Collington Avenue between Baltimore Street and Fairmount Avenue is often cited as the nicest block of Butchers Hill, a gentrification success story. This block is set off by a slight zig-zag in the street grid which is fairly unusual for Baltimore, giving it a unique set-apart quality.

The next block north on Collington is where the famous Bea Gaddy used to have her semi-permanent tent straddling the sidewalk and street where she collected and distributed food for the poor. This block has long been a classic "transition zone" linking Baltimore's various subcultures, both underground and overground. The tent is now gone and the housing has been reverted and renovated to more purely residential uses.

The next block to the north, between Fayette and Orleans, is physically just like all the others, except that it is no longer within the political boundary of what is known as Butchers Hill, except to real estate agents. The real estate agents have had some success in promoting this block, shown by some renovation and increased property values. But the differences in values compared to only a block or two to the south can still amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. This block is where the shooting happened.

Fayette and Orleans Street are geographically significant in that they both been set up to carry heavy through traffic, even though they are no wider than any other streets in the area and are still predominantly residential. The heavy traffic increases the boundary effect between Butchers Hill and Middle East in a way that has no permanent physical basis.

Finally, north of Orleans Street is where the murder victim lived - on the other side of the perceived boundary. Beyond this point, the urban street grid keeps on going in all directions, creating a quilt of perceptions and consequences that never ends.

Orleans Street's role carrying heavy traffic was solidified in the 1930s, long after its housing was built, when the massive Orleans Street Viaduct was built a mile to the west - still the closest thing in East Baltimore to an expressway. Fells Point and Canton fought a life or death struggle in the expressway war of the 1970s and 1980s to avoid this kind of fate. Orleans Street has the distinction of being the only street in East Baltimore where no parking at all is allowed in front of the houses. Heavy traffic whizzes by, just a narrow sidewalk away from the old houses.

Orleans Street's mirror image on the west side of Baltimore is the Franklin-Mulberry "highway to nowhere", where the entire neighborhood was destroyed in the 1970s to accommodate the traffic, rather than simply juxtaposing cars with houses as was done on Orleans. In the four decades since, planners have been promising to build a cap over the expressway to restore the urban grid to what it once was, but this promise has never been fulfilled. It wouldn't make much difference anyway, because the street grid only transmits the influences from one block to the next, it doesn't create them. The street grid is common to most of Baltimore's richest, poorest, most pristine and most blighted neighborhoods alike.

Nowadays planners have more sophisticated tools to alter perceptions. The recently announced "Roundabout Baltimore" program proposes traffic circles to interrupt the rhythm of the urban grid. Replacing an intersection with a roundabout is a powerful way to create a "place" of its own, apart from the influences of the surrounding area. A proposed roundabout at Key Highway and Light Street would call new attention to its own place, apart from the already very powerful influence of the adjacent Inner Harbor and somewhat less but still potent Federal Hill community. The choice of a design element inside the roundabout will also flavor this perception, although most roundabouts are set up to prevent pedestrians from getting to the epicenter.

The harbor itself must be regarded as Baltimore's most powerful geographic element, but streets are the most ubiquitous. It can even be argued that one of the most important attributes of the harbor is that it is a broad expanse of open space without any streets.

So how important is urban geography? Extremely important. On North Collington Avenue, geographic influences have caused four virtually identical adjacent blocks to evolve quite differently from each other. The urban grid transmits a powerful influence that spreads in all directions. It can mean life or death for communities - and for people.

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