copyright 2001 Linda Marcas - All Rights Reserved
Crank's Corner: Commentary by Linda Marcas
Chips Off the Old Block
It's across the street; hubby and I look at it every day. We've been looking at it every day for years,
wishing that we'd hit the lottery so that we could buy it and fix it up, even if it would end up being worth
"less" than what we'd put into it. I'm talking about the Block Building, of course, another piece of
downtown North Baltimore that's about to bite the dust, literally.
I understand that downtown NB has suffered the loss of many of its old buildings because of fires,
but it's a pity that it should lose even more through neglect. I won't say "simple" neglect, because the tangle
of finances and bureaucracy surrounding abandoned buildings is usually anything but simple. Nobody
knows who's responsible, nobody wants to or can afford to pay for it, and nobody steps up to the plate.
Eventually, demolition becomes the only answer, but there's the rub; it costs money to tear down buildings
that deteriorated because no one threw money at them to prevent the deterioration.
Unless a miracle occurs, the Block Building will eventually come down, at the expense of a private
or civic pocketbook. Its loss will also be at the expense of Main Street, because I suppose there will be a
gravel lot in the gaping hole it leaves behind. I'd like to see something other than a gravel lot when I look
out my windows, so here are my impractical, can't-be-done, liability-inducing suggestions for what to do
with that space, both during and after they knock the Block off.
Hubby had an idea that might help to defray the costs of demolition; it's not likely to turn out this
way, but consider it for a moment. Part of the cost of demolition is hauling away all the resulting debris,
which, in the case of the Block, will involve many, many bricks. Why not sell the bricks for a penny each,
with the buyer responsible for hauling them away and cleaning them? Patios, walkways, flower beds,
barbeques.....surely the happy homeowners of NB could find uses for many tons of bricks, thus keeping
them out of the landfill and cutting down the cost for hauling them away.
Building contractors could get in on this act; maybe they already do, and used bricks don't get
dumped in the landfill, but cleaned up and used again. When I lived in Southern California, "used bricks"
cost much more than new ones, probably because of the cleaning labor involved. Couldn't we use the
of petty criminals sentenced to "community service" to clean bricks, and then sell them for more than a
penny each? Could bricks from "on site" be used to reinforce the walls of the neighboring buildings?
The Toledo Zoo was built largely by WPA labor, using materials salvaged from defunct canals and
rail yards; people go on architectural tours to admire those zoo buildings. A similar program, on a much
smaller scale, might work for turning the empty lot left behind by the Block Building into a community
garden area, with raised beds and benches and paving all constructed of bricks and timbers from the old
building itself. Perhaps the Penta County Vocational School's masonry program would get involved, letting
the young masons-in-training practice their bricklaying skills while benefitting NB in the process.
Village Pizza might open a walk-up window in the south side of their building, and the garden area
could double as an outdoor dining area, or just as a place for bicycle riders fron the Slippery Elm Trail to
set a spell while they drink milkshakes from the Daily Queen. Many big cities have "pocket parks" built
into their commercial areas, with permanent chess tables where the locals can meet for a friendly game, or
just to chat and enjoy the air. Wouldn't this be better for downtown NB than another parking lot?
With summer coming, I'm hoping to see the local Farmers' Market back in action on Saturday
mornings. Instead of setting up next to the noise of the railroad tracks and on the scorching asphalt parking
lot, those vendors might prefer to utilize the rear portion of the Block lot, where there is drive-in access
from the alley. I'm sure they'd also appreciate the shade from a couple of permanent awning structures,
similar to the ones at the Toledo Farmers' Market; there must be enough salvagable wood in the Block's
floors and walls to construct a few of these shelters. They don't have to be fancy, just functional, and a
of paint does wonders for old wood.
During the week, or on weekends if there is room enough, the Farmers' Market shelters could be
used by local folks who felt inclined to set up their crafts or garage-sale items for sale. Boosters and high-
school fundraisers could hold their bake sales in the same area, in a spot where people could sit down
they munch on their cookies. Keeping downtown alive depends, in part, on having space in it for living.
You can't do much living on crushed stone in an empty lot.
I don't really expect that any of this will ever happen; there are always too many reasons for doing
the easiest thing, and too few incentives for doing the thing that is more difficult. Why give teenagers
another place to hang out? Aren't there enough places for them to stand around on Main Street already?
What about vandalism? Quaint, old-fashioned street lamps on picturesque poles would be too dim; that
space would need brilliant sodium or mercury vapor security lights, and who'd pay for those? Instead of
saving the carved limestone BLOCK letters to use as part of a low wall along the front of the park, just
break them up and haul them away, along with a large chunk of North Baltimore's history. Nobody is
to care about any chips off the old Block.