December 22, 2016

A statue where Tupac Shakur first lived on the edge

Now that Tupac Shakur is being inducted into immortality at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Baltimore needs to recognize its place in his musical geography. Baltimore needs a statue to Tupac.

Through the label of "West Coast Hip-Hop", Tupac melded music and geography. Baltimore was the last place he lived in middle and high school before moving to the west coast.

His family lived in the kind of rowhouse Baltimore is known for, in what ought to be an attractive setting on Greenmount Avenue. It sits right on the edge of the working class Penn Lucy neighborhood, where it abuts the affluent Guilford neighborhood.

Chez Shakur is the second house from the left in these two groups of three - 3955 Greenmount Avenue -
as seen from the green Guilford courtyard across the street that masks the busy traffic barrier.
Greenmount Avenue is thus known as an economic and racial barrier. Unfair, overgeneralized and overplayed or not, it's regarded as "poor and black" to the east and "rich and white" to the west. Conflicts and contrasts are always simmering, just as they were in 2Pac's time between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop cultures. Ultimately this framed the narrative of his drive-by assassination in Las Vegas twenty years ago at age 25.

Labels like east versus west applied to hip-hop or Greenmount Avenue are very easy convenient concepts to hang onto, which accounts for their power. We address conflicts though geography as varied as sports where we root for the home team to politics where we choose our President through our state representations in the Electoral College. Economic aid is given to distressed neighborhoods or cities beyond what we give to distressed people.

Greenmount Avenue is a very long straight street which becomes York Road just to the north of Tupac's house and then extends northward all the way into Pennsylvania. As a pre-automotive city, streets with  that much continuity are rare in Baltimore. On the south end, Greenmount gets enticingly close to downtown Baltimore, but then gently pivots in front of the city's prison complex and then ends in Old Town, which has never recovered from the 1968 riots brought on by the assassination of Martin Luther King.

There are many very attractive houses and streets, and many dedicated residents on both sides of Greenmount Avenue, but that doesn't change the narrative.

Greenmount Avenue gets its power from its linearity. It's like a passive line in the sand which becomes a provocation. But Baltimore needs to use it to negotiate for good instead of bad, so we don't end up like Tupac did in Las Vegas.

Death as a career move

It is often said that in show-biz, from Elvis to Michael Jackson, death is a good career move. Baltimore has two other inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they're dead too - Frank Zappa and Mama Cass Elliott. Of course, all three had to leave Baltimore to acquire fame and fortune. Frank Zappa's musical influence as a writer and performer transcended genres perhaps more than anyone in American history except Duke Ellington or George Gershwin, who were much more apparently rooted in American geography.

Mention should also be given to David Byrne of the "New Wave" Talking Heads who grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Arbutus and went to New York to become recognized, and is still very much alive.

Mama Cass came to fame by way of the Mamas and Papas folk-rock group, where John Phillips was the leader and songwriter, although Cass was their most distinctive, beloved and "weighty" singer. She was just starting to shed the "mama" moniker, which she didn't like, when she died. Even in death, people mischaracterized her, saying she choked on a ham sandwich, which was untrue even though it stuck.

Frank Zappa has gotten a statue in front of the Highlandtown library, which is very nice but has very little significance beyond its face value. He grew up on the other side of town.

Image result for frank zappa baltimore statue
Zappa statue in Highlandtown with Baltimore Mayor
Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (in blue), Zappa Family and others. )
Frank Zappa's statue does, however, serve as a precedent and prototype for what should be done for Tupac Shakur. The most striking thing about it is its verticality, which creates an appropriately "larger than life" aura. But it does not command attention from passers-by, whether walking or driving. It's easy to ignore, unlike Zappa himself. Maybe that was intentional, conveying that Zappa didn't quite fit into Highlandtown's commercial branding strategy.

The stakes are higher for the legacy of Tupac Shakur. Statues are an element of geography, and geography played a major role in his life and musical career. In turn, race itself plays a prominent role in geography, especially in Baltimore and especially on Greenmount Avenue.

Meanwhile, the city is still engaged in a great municipal reappraisal of our historic Civil War monuments. Who among the statues are capable of withstanding 150 years of scrutiny? A who among them will now be declared unworthy and dismantled? The Mayor ducked the verdicts of her task force before she left office last week, leaving the statues in limbo.

The kind of controversy Baltimore appears to be capable of resolving is whether last year's Freddie Gray "Black Lives Matter" rioters should be called "thugs". After much debate, the answer is apparently "no". But of course, 2Pac had no qualms about using words like "thug", as well as a lot stronger words, including that one that begins with an "N".

Ah, but he's an artiste. His zeal for freedom of expression against "political correctness" was something he had in common with Frank Zappa, who once testified as such to Congress.

Statues to both Frank Zappa and Tupac Shakur will thus have to withstand another 150 years of scrutiny and reappraisal against constantly changing political standards.

The Best of 2Pac - Pt. 1: Thug
"The Best of 2Pac: Thug" album cover

Where to put the Tupak Shakur Statue?

Baltimore is a big city with lots of nooks and crannies in which to install statues. But Tupac needs to be noticed and reckoned with. He should also have geographic context. Context, however, is a multiple edge sword. Explanatory context was supposed to resolve the Civil War monument controversies - add some explanatory text saying that of course don't believe in slavery anymore and have evolved into far superior human beings. Of course.

The most obvious candidate location is the wide median on 33rd Street in the middle of the Waverly business district just a few blocks south on Greenmount from the Shakur House. But can Waverly withstand the Tupac brand as well as Highlandtown dealt with Zappa?

I'd say the answer is a resounding "No". Waverly's biggest retail plum over the past 50 years since James Rouse built the Waverly Towers shopping center at 29th Street was to get a Giant Supermarket, but the design turned its back to the entire rest of the business district. Most recently, Charles Village, the ivory tower Johns Hopkins University neighborhood just to the west decided it needed to expand its own retail district - which has turned out to be at the expense of its students shopping in Waverly.

Waverly probably can't withstand sharing its iconography with 2Pac.

If not Waverly, then where? Upton is the place where a nascent African-American Historic District has been gestating for many decades (while its history continues to crumble or be demolished). But that's a long way from Greenmount Avenue. In a city that's two-thirds black, do we still put everything that's really black all in one place?

Then there's "historically black" Morgan State University which is not too far east. That would probably work politically in an antiseptic ivory tower kind of way. Would Tupac approve?

It was previously proposed by one of my dear blog commenters that the city put it in a park which I had proposed at North Avenue and Charles Street, which is now undergoing a funky organic "arts district" kind of gentrification, near three colleges - Johns Hopkins, Maryland Institute and University of Baltimore. It's culturally and racially neutral territory. and is at the very geographic center of the entire city. This would work!

But the best site for a Tupak Shakur Shrine is...

... just two blocks north of Tupak's house near where Greenmount Avenue becomes York Road at Northway.

At this point, York Road becomes about ten feet wider than Greenmount, so the city installed a grass median strip a few years ago in an attempt at "beautification". It also becomes a commercial rather than a residential area, with the kind of nondescript businesses that have no cultural identity whatsoever. In other words, it's racially neutral territory.

The downside is that with no residents and no cultural identity, there is no constituency for maintaining any beautification, so the new median has become a mere nondescript grassy patch.

York Road looking south from Northway. Tupak's Greenmount Avenue neighborhood begins
 up ahead where the road narrows, the median ends and the trees get more plentiful.

So this median strip is the perfect place for a tall Tupac shrine that everyone must see but no one will have to confront.

But the piece de resistance is directly at the intersection of York Road and Northway - a magnificent stone wall that separates the exclusive Guilford neighborhood to the west from York Road to the east.

The wall is entirely symbolic. It is totally open for the free movement of pedestrians and vehicles (one-way outbound away from the neighborhood). The wall exists only as a beautiful icon. It's the kind of beauty Donald Trump sees when he when waxes poetic about his proposed wall at the Mexican border and which Hillary Clinton describes as Un-American and The Pope describes as sinful (as if The Vatican doesn't have a wall.)

Another alternative is a block closer to Chez Shakur at the intersection of Underwood Road, but it is in a more natural vegetative state and is more residential, with no iconic wall and less room for the shrine.

The Northway wall looking west into the affluent Guilford neighborhood from York Road

At Northway, there is plenty of room for the adjacent York Road sidewalk to be upgraded as a viewing area for the statue with explanatory verbiage. An endowment fund can be established by affluent liberals to pay for maintenance and to manage any artifacts of "self-expression" left by tourists and fans.

This is the wall that young Tupak Shakur grew up with before he joined the war between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop.

December 8, 2016

The new Lexington Market needs a grand staircase

The most important part of the new Lexington Market plan is the creation of its new outdoor space. That alone is sufficient reason to knock down the existing market and replace it with a new one with a glassy expanse that overlooks it.

The proposed new Lexington Market has some grand shoes to fill. It is essentially the last vestige of the transformational grandeur that was supposed to happen with the massive failed "Superblock" project. Before that, Baltimore's two rail transit lines, which almost but don't quite come together nearby, were supposed to trigger the transformation. But now there's not really a whole lot here to build upon - not even any of the great architecture that exists in abundance nearby but not here.

What the latest Lexington Market plan needs is a grand staircase - something sculptural, something iconic, something that adds the decisive vertical dimension. Something you can hang out on, something you can run up and down, not just in short choppy steps, but triumphantly like Rocky,

Designer's first draft: A stairway that's just a stairway - too steep, too plain,
and surrounded by plants where it should be surrounded by people.

The goal must still be for the new Lexington Market to establish a prominent place for itself in the center of the city, and reverse decades of de-emphasis of this area in Baltimore's overall geography. Now that downtown as a whole has also been de-emphasized as the center of the region, in favor of being just a neighborhood, this repositioning is more important than ever.

Basically, the new Lexington Market is being called upon to perform the same feat of urban development that the "Superblock" mega-project was called upon and failed to accomplish over the past two decades, and a series of other grandiose proposals also failed to do going all the way back to the 1970s. The city just needs to plan smarter.

The latest concept for the market is basically a good one. The new market needs to be glassy and extroverted, in contrast to the existing market which looks in on itself. That's about all that can be asked of the building's architects. What's critical is that the new market must look out upon something that warrants our attention, and that's where the adjacent proposed park and stairway must do their job.

Here's an example of a big iconic public stairway that successfully defines an urban space,
and could be a model for the Lexington Market Park. The central bulls-eye could also serve as a performance stage.

The new stairway should be a place to look out at and to look at from, a place to eat and to listen to musical performances and to watch the whole urban theater that unfolds around it. It should encompass the entire park, from Paca Street where it embraces the expanding University of Maryland campus, all the way to Eutaw Street and the expanding Lexington Market Metro Transit Hub.

A recent geographical history of Lexington Street

The current Lexington Market was expanded to engulf the adjacent block of Lexington Street from Paca to Eutaw in the early 1980s, the final step in the systematic elimination of six blocks of Lexington all the way from Charles Street to the east, which began in the 1960s, thus cutting off this area from the rest of downtown.

Into the 1950s, Lexington was one of Baltimore's main east-west streets, its retail district extending all the way eastward to Charles Street. First, the block between Liberty and Charles was eliminated in the 1960s with the creation of the Charles Center plan. It then remained as a construction zone well into the 1980s, the last portion of Charles Center that was completed. It was not just cut off to cars, but to everyone, until a large stairway was built just east of where Lexington once connected to Charles Street.

Another drab steep stairway that doesn't work well - where Lexington Street once existed into the 1960s
 and is now inside Charles Center. Charles Street is at the top of the photo. The Center Plaza park is in the foreground below.

This was essentially an afterthought to the rest of the Charles Center plan, although it was sold as a resolution of the conflicts of cars versus people. In the 1970s, Lexington Street was also closed to cars to the west between Liberty and Howard Street and turned into a pedestrian mall. Howard Street was then made into a "bus mall" as well, and later added light rail. Finally, after the retail business had dropped precipitously and there were no longer enough pedestrians to justify it, Lexington Street was rebuilt again and de-malled to accommodate cars.

Howard Street was also reopened to cars, although its orientation to transit made the average speed too slow to attract many cars. This garnered many complaints. People complain when traffic is too fast, but also when it's too slow. You just can't win when the conflict is expressed as cars versus people, when the real conflict is simply between streets that work and those that don't.

Amid all this, the Howard/Lexington retail district, once the flagship for the entire region, descended into irrelevance. Then more recently amid the rise of the Inner Harbor and its further drift to the southeast, downtown as a whole had to be rebranded as a neighborhood. So now we're back to square one, with the Lexington Market area searching for a new identity.

The new Lexington Market plan calls for a new somewhat smaller building on the vacant lot just to the south, with a bright glassy airy look that reminds everyone that they're in the middle of the city. This would allow adjacent Lexington Street to be reopened to pedestrians, but not to traffic, and incorporated into a park just to the north.

But parks have previously been promoted as the area's salvation. Fairly recently when the city was still trying to save the grandiose "Superblock" plan, the Baltimore Arena site several blocks away was proposed as a much larger park, to be financed by alleged tax revenue growth in a "TIF Bond District" throughout the west side of downtown. The Center Plaza park in Charles Center (see photo above) was also totally rebuilt about a decade ago, but it still suffers from the same basic problem of being an "inner block park" which violates the laws of urban geography that parks must be integrated with the street network for proper surveillance and exposure.

So the design of the new Lexington Market Park is critical in order to avoid the pitfalls of these other park attempts. It must feel like part of the market and also a natural extension of the surrounding streets, with space that is conducive to gathering. Hopefully, the much smaller and more purposeful Lexington Market Park will succeed and help purge all the previous park planning attempts at grandiosity.

Stairway to heaven

The proposed park's dominant physical element is a 15 foot elevation drop between Paca and Eutaw Street. This is a golden opportunity to build something grand - an iconic staircase designed around people - and not just any staircase. It should be designed like a big grandstand where people oversee other people. At the bottom should be a stage for performers, not just artists paid by the city or the market but any impromptu street performers who just happen to show up.

Grand mansions are built around grand staircases, and grand cities should be too. This should be the place where Baltimore's version of Rocky (Charles "Roc" Dutton? Rocky Carroll?) runs to the top and then congratulates himself for being himself. Large public stairways have an obligation to be designed to rise to the occasion to justify themselves.

If a 15 foot elevation differential is good, a much larger change would be even better. So if possible, the Lexington Market Park should be incorporated into the adjacent Metro Station down underneath Eutaw Street. This is destined to be and to remain the central transit hub for the entire regional transit system, since it's where the heavy and light rail lines come together, so it needs all the prominence it can get.

But unlike the smaller but similar subway entrance on the other side of Lexington and Eutaw which was designed around escalators, this one can give more priority to being artful rather than only a way to get from A to B, bringing more light and air into the otherwise dank expanses of the subway station . Perhaps this is where the performance stage should be, so sounds can waft into the subway, with maximum audience room above it toward the market.

Ultimately, the new Lexington Market needs to achieve the same transformative vision with this relatively modest project that the much more grandiose "superblock" was supposed to do.

Bunker Hill steps in Los Angeles - This perhaps shows an inkling of the kind of design that is needed
 in front of Lexington Market. (

December 2, 2016

New Amtrak tunnel can help freight and local agendas

The latest $4.52 billion cost estimate for the replacement Amtrak tunnel under West Baltimore demonstrates the high stakes in infrastructure investment. But if all that money can enable the project to be done right, then that's how it should be done. (Who's money? That's still to be addressed.)

This project essentially creates a starting point from which all agendas can be served: Not just for the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, but also the freight rail system, the MARC Commuter rail system, and the local communities such as around the West Baltimore MARC Station. Everyone can win.

One of the gaps in the existing 1873 Amtrak tunnel which shows just how close to the surface it is.
The proposed tunnel would be much deeper.

What's not included: Speed

But first for the record, this expensive new tunnel doesn't have anything to do with vaunted "high speed rail" ambitions for the Northeast Corridor between Washington and New York. The proposed 1.4 mile tunnel would only allow train speeds to increase from "creaky" to "slow". The whole issue of true high speed rail is not being addressed - whether from Magnetic Levitation or even conventional European/Japanese technology (which is rooted in the 20th rather than 21st century).

Speed is addictive, however, which is why Amtrak got pushed to the back burner in the first place, in favor of faster airplanes (remember the supersonic Concorde?) and even Interstate highways (think General Motors' Futurama).

So the proposed West Baltimore Amtrak tunnel merely allows us to catch up with the present, or maybe not even that far. The current tunnel is an 1873 model. Think of this project like an upgrade to a serviceable used car that just whets your appetite for that future Ferrari.

But a functioning 1973 Chevy Chevelle would still be very useful in getting us from Point "A" to Point "B". It will just allow Baltimore and the Northeast Corridor to "move forward, not backward", as our new Mayor Pugh would put it.

Amtrak's agenda: Averting disaster and promoting Penn Station development

Point One: The existing ancient tunnel is a disaster waiting to happen. Anything bad that happens down there could paralyze the Northeast Corridor for days, months or even years.

The existing tunnel cannot even be properly maintained. At the very least, a new tunnel is needed so that the existing tunnel can be closed to await long-needed renovations for whatever purpose it ends up with in the future. The new tunnel would have four tracks to serve both Amtrak and MARC.

Secondly, Amtrak has an important side-business in promoting development around its stations. Amtrak stresses its "downtown-to-downtown" service, but downtown is not what it used to be. Most of its stations are on the edge of things, and need to be pulled into the center. The epicenter of the Amtrak universe at New York's Penn Station is next to Hell's Kitchen, which is now being transformed by a multi-billion dollar development above the train yard. Similarly, Philadelphia's station is on the "wrong side" of the Susquehanna River, which Amtrak and others have been busy developing into the "right side".

Amtrak land around Baltimore's Penn Station has been contemplated for similar ambitious development for decades. After many false premature starts, it is now being led by Michael Beatty, the developer behind Harbor Point.

The proposed new tunnel immediately to the west is Amtrak's way of ensuring that this development can be marketed to people along the entire Northeast Corridor, and not be merely an alternative to Harbor Point (or Port Covington), which are being planned for relative isolation from the rail corridor. Amtrak feels a need to get part of the action.

MARC's commuter rail agenda: The West Baltimore Station

The southwest end of the Amtrak tunnel project will be the West Baltimore MARC Station, which is at the west end of the US 40 Franklin-Mulberry corridor. This station is totally substandard for handling passengers and needs to be relocated. It is on a curve, it cannot be upgraded for the disabled, and boarding occurs on the center tracks, which now requires crossing the outer tracks to get there.  

A new station needs to be built in concert with the new tunnel, the portal of which will be on the revised alignment just to the north. This new alignment will cause much disruption to the surrounding communities, which should be made into an opportunity to promote revitalization of these communities, as well as the adjacent "Highway to Nowhere" which has been a scar for West Baltimore for many decades.

The new West Baltimore MARC Station would also be on a brand new bridge over Franklin and Mulberry Streets, so there is no need to cram all the street traffic, pedestrians and the rail station patrons into the narrow scary underpasses adjacent to the two streets. If and when the Red Line is built, it would also not have to be crammed into these underpasses as well.

Beyond that, the relationship between regional Amtrak service and more localized MARC service needs to be redefined. The needs of the various rider markets need to be more focused. Right now, MARC serves very few riders with Baltimore as their destination, but in the future, there will be a need for service which has more of the the flexibility and efficiency of a conventional random on/off rapid transit line.

This not only applies to the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but up to Philadelphia as well. Right now, MARC comes within only a few miles of the comparable SEPTA commuter rail service around the Delaware border. This gap not only needs to be closed, but this arbitrary seam needs be eliminated. Why end MARC service at Perryville or Wilmington? If the MARC trains go that far, they should go all the way to Philadelphia. And if that happens, the distinction between the roles of commuter rail and Amtrak will need to be redefined.

The West Baltimore MARC Station, along with others such as Halethorpe and Odenton, will thus function more like Amtrak stations, which will strengthen the entire system and the communities they serve.

The freight agenda: The Howard Street CSX tunnel

The new Amtrak tunnel will also be more attractive for freight trains, which on face value is a good thing. But that's mainly just because the existing CSX freight line and tunnel under Howard Street is so bad, in terms of safety, disruption and lack of capacity.

All of the adjacent communities around the new and old Amtrak tunnels, as well as along the CSX freight lines, are concerned about this. But failing to improve the rail lines is no solution. Trains are not going to disappear.

Fortunately, a viable plan to enlarge and upgrade the Howard Street freight tunnel is now available after many years of hand-wringing. This is where the freight trains ought to be. The current situation where a few freight trains use the Amtrak line in the middle of the night is clearly a stopgap at best.

Groups such as in Reservoir Hill who have been fighting the new Amtrak tunnel would be better served by pushing for the Howard Street freight tunnel upgrade to be built as a prerequisite for the Amtrak project. This would allow the Amtrak tunnel to be strictly passengers-only while the CSX tunnel would be freight-only. That's a win-win for everybody.

In sum, Amtrak riders may be the smallest beneficiaries of the new tunnel. They will save a couple minutes at most traversing the current 1.4 mile distance. What's most important is to ensure that other agendas are best served as well: Building better communities around Penn Station and the West Baltimore MARC Station, upgrading and redefining the MARC system, and providing safe and efficient movement for both freight and passengers on the CSX and Amtrak lines.