Has All the Character ‘Vanished’ from Charles Street?

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Charles Street
Baltimore’s First Unitarian Church on Charles St. Photographed 1936 by E.H. Pickering

I moved to Baltimore in 2008, so what do I know? I walk North Charles Street and think it’s mostly pretty swell. Longtime Baltimore resident (and big-time publisher and columnist) Russ Smith sees it differently. He published a personal essay at his own Splice Today that states unequivocally that North Charles Street is a shadow of its former self.

Smith narrated a recent walk up Charles after a check-depositing excursion in which he noted a lack of a trashcans and a surfeit of Subway restaurants, 7-Elevens, and “filthy bodegas.”

For Smith, the blame belongs with our recent string of mayors, all of whom prefer “to lavish tax breaks to corporations that don’t need them instead of addressing the eyesore boarded-up storefronts on Charles St.”

What do you say? Has Charles street “go[ne] to seed?” Has its character “vanished?” Have we put too much emphasis on (and money into!) incentivizing development in the Inner Harbor?

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  1. I 100% agree with Russ Smith. The last couple of mayors have neglected architectural treasures throughout the City in general, and nearly all the historic commercial buildings along Charles St. For years we all watched 301 N. Charles, the stunning Art Deco-era high-rise along Charles, sit vacant and dilapidated. This year it’s finally becoming a nice high-end apartment building with hopefully a few good commercial tenants on the first floor, but only because of private investment. God knows how much red tape the developer had to wade through at City Hall to get this done. As a small business owner in Mt. Vernon myself, I have been tortured and crucified by City Hall, and probably face further retaliation for writing this, but someone needs to stand up to the ineptitude.

    As a child I remember accompanying my grandparents to shopping trips along Charles. It was a wonderful collection of specialty stores, kind of like an outdoor mall, but with only Mom and Pops. The strip was dotted with wonderful places to eat, and had a real sense of vitality.

    At last count however, 50% of the historic store fronts south of the Monument are vacant, and have been for 20 years. This stretch could be as wonderful as M Street in Georgetown, but it seems the Mayor’s Office is only interested in supporting moneyed outside developers and the big bloated projects of Harbor East. The Superblock, at this point, has just become an embarrassment. The few buildings that did have vibrant businesses there were strong-armed out of existence, and now the whole strip sits there crumbling and desolate.

    Cathedral Hill/Mount Vernon with its stunning historic architecture, central location, and ease of access to public transportation, have the potential to be the most sought-after neighborhoods south of Manhattan, but they need buy-in from the Mayor’s Office if this is ever to become a reality. For one thing, the neighborhoods were mostly built in the Gilded Era, when construction and labor was cheaper, and the tradesmen talent base was far greater. Nowadays restoration of such properties comes with a huge price tag that is just out of reach for most small business owners. Without government buy-in, the Charles St. commercial district will continue to languish for decades. I’m not holding my breath.

  2. Charles St south of Monument St is a traffic bottleneck, with little to no parking, and the sun never shines on the little canyon of small, abandoned (but architecturally delightful) shops south of Mulberry. It really could be an M street if anyone focused on making that area navigable and cheerful.

  3. As someone who lives on N. Charles I can safely say yes, it has gone to seed. No retail store stays open for more than a couple months, and if I see one more 7-11 come in the neighborhood I’ll have no choice but to move (do we really need 2 of them within 2 blocks?!) These and Subways are seriously ruining the nice old buildings and the surrounding area…oh the stories I could tell!

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