On Tuesday, The New York Times published a real estate story about a Baltimore neighborhood on the come-up thanks to the elbow grease of determined residents banding together to save their patch of a woefully troubled city.
That neighborhood was Mount Vernon. No, that is not a typo.
“Locals get mad at national reporter who parachutes in for story and gets it wrong” is almost a genre of online outrage/online journalism unto itself, but the narrative here seemed particularly odd.
The opening says Mount Vernon “was for many years a haven for prostitutes and crack dens,” and quotes Charles Duff, of Jubilee Baltimore, as saying the city was in “free fall” from 1990 and 2000, an era during which homes and apartments in Mount Vernon were “selling and renting at slum prices.”
Things began to change in 2008, the Times said, when residents formed the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy “to restore the monument and the four small parks that surround it.” A biography on the conservancy’s website offers this same narrative: “Each organization recognized that Mount Vernon Place, a National Historic Landmark District, required a greater level of investment than the City of Baltimore could offer, or that could be achieved through the efforts of local volunteers.”
A liquor store, Spirits of Mount Vernon, opened and helped spur a boom in retail, according to the story. The Times also pointed to the recent arrival of two newer hotels, The Ivy, with its $600-a-night rooms, and the Hotel Revival, as signs of all the bustling activity afoot here.
On social media, there was something incongruous about the story to people who live here, including The Sun‘s Jean Marabella, a past resident, and my former colleague at City Paper, Baynard Woods, who still lives nearby. (City Councilman Eric Costello, whose district includes Mount Vernon, seemed to like it, however.)
A review of the Times‘ archives for mentions of Mount Vernon shows the story doesn’t really jibe with the Gray Lady’s past reporting, either.
Reflecting the neighborhood’s tony beginnings, some of the earliest mentions can be found in the society pages. But let’s jump ahead to 1981, when The Times came through town to see what all the Harborplace hype was about.
Writer Paul Goldberger called Mount Vernon Place “one of the finest downtown squares in the United States.”
Five years prior, the Times lavished praise on what it called “the cultural heart” of Baltimore.
“This impeccable spot of urban greenery, evocative of 19th‐century London at its gracious best, is home to the Walters Art Gallery, the Maryland Historical Society and the Peabody Conservatory, among other cultural institutions,” that article enthused. “The area consists of a cruciform of small tree‐shaded parks replete with statues, fountains, handsome brownstone homes and Barye bronzes.”
While describing Mount Vernon in 1999 as a stately neighborhood that was “still a bit frayed at the edges,” as it has always been, the Times saw a burgeoning retail and nightlife scene taking shape.
“The difference is that home-grown enterprises have burrowed in here and there, so that visitors to Mount Vernon’s cultural institutions can stop for latte or Indian food in one of the gracious stone apartment buildings, joining the multiply-pierced music and art students who keep Charles Street alive at night.”
In 2001, when the neighborhood was reportedly at one of its lowest points, according to Duff, the Times again reached for a European comparison when describing the park near the monument, praising the “the Parisian city-park layout, along with the cultural institutions that enliven the neighborhood.”
Writer Diane Cole lauded the area for its “old-style formal elegance.” There were no mentions of crack dens or prostitutes. The headline did call the city “dowdy,” for whatever it’s worth.
Moving forward three years, and 28 years from the above 1976 article, the paper still saw fit to call Mount Vernon the city’s “cultural center,” adding that it was “studded with cafes, galleries and elegant townhouses.”
Interestingly enough, the hotel that once existed where Hotel Revival is now, the Peabody Court, was a favorite of Times writers over the years, recommended in 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2004–covering large parts of Mount Vernon’s supposed era of sex, drugs and squalor.
You get the idea.
Listen, there’s no shortage of good things happening in Mount Vernon, and some of them have taken place in the last several years. But this isn’t quite a story about a phoenix rising from the ashes.
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