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Charmed Life

Road Warrior

Michelle Gienow

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/30/2001

Somewhere in my personal archives--that is, in the heap of paper in my closet--there's a lovely old postcard that shows North Charles Street in Mount Vernon circa 1940, with automobile traffic running conspicuously southward. Natives over the age of 50 may recall this bygone traffic pattern, but to a latecomer such as myself, the postcard was a startling revelation: Charles Street ran south? What sort of civic earthquake did it take to flip the city's main street end to end?

The cataclysm, I've learned, consisted of one swaggering, self-taught traffic engineer named Henry A. Barnes, who came to Baltimore in 1953 following tours of duty in Flint, Mich., and Denver. As Baltimore's traffic commissioner, Barnes rerouted not only Charles but also Calvert, St. Paul, and any number of lesser streets in the mid-'50s, upsetting centuries-old traditions in the process. With the powerful blessing of Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro Sr., Barnes and his troops planted scads of parking meters, erected hundreds of new traffic lights and more than 100,000 signs, painted more than 10 million feet of pavement stripes, and installed a traffic-control computer that was, in 1957, the largest of its kind in the world. In 1961, having spent the better part of a decade modernizing the recalcitrant city, Barnes asked D'Alesandro's successor, J. Harold Grady, for a raise--his first--from $18,000 to $20,000. Grady turned him down, and Barnes took a new job, at much higher pay, slapping New York into shape.

Tellingly, the commissioner's own version of the story leaves out the snub from Grady--it doesn't even mention Grady. Barnes' 1965 autobiography, The Man With the Red and Green Eyes, is a self-serving but consistently amusing tale in a broad, boastful style; it might be subtitled My Colorful Career Fixing Things Up for a Bunch of Unappreciative Nitwits. Epic self-confidence, even arrogance, colored Barnes' prose as it drove his career.

According to his memoir, Barnes initially came to Baltimore for a one-month consulting job and was appalled by what he found. The controls for the city's busiest downtown intersections consisted of a box of electric switches "located in the men's toilet of the police building and attached to the wall with a couple of rusty nails." Among "other surprises" were "the lack of one-way streets, the free-for-all truck routes, the menacing monuments that cluttered up the avenues, the buses and cabs that operated as though they were fueled with high-octane Bourbon, and the pedestrians who just didn't give a damn." Barnes capped his consulting visit with 172 pages of bluntly phrased recommendations that--to Barnes' amazement--prompted a 5 a.m. recruitment call from Mayor D'Alesandro. As Barnes records it, the mayor shouted into the telephone, "I just read your goddam report and I think it's wonderful." D'Alesandro, portrayed as a lovable, avuncular figure, is one of the very few public officials who comes off well in the book.

Barnes' vignettes of mid-20th-century Baltimore reveal a city mired in the past. When the traffic czar held public hearings on the plan to reverse Charles Street, "one female citizen . . . came dripping in mink and exuding all the old airs of historic Baltimore. . . . 'You just don't understand, Mr. Barnes,' she said. 'You're a newcomer here. We have traditions in Baltimore. . . . If you reverse the direction of the street, you're making it easy for the people of South Baltimore to use Charles . . . and they will.'"

The reversals went ahead, but other local eccentricities had Barnes stumped. When Barnes threatened to shut down the annual Flower Mart, the Women's Civic League surpassed his demand for 200,000 signatures in support of their annual festival at Mount Vernon Square ("a nuisance, a menace, and a pox but Baltimore loved it"); the event snarls traffic to this day. And Barnes was never able to solve the problem of crab-cake-crazed Baltimoreans triple-parking outside a "famous fish house" on Pulaski Highway.

He considered Balt-imore's fondness for monuments a monument to municipal insanity: "Next to crab cakes, [monuments] were the citizens' second greatest passion. It didn't matter if the monument was an eyesore, if it was erected to someone who had long since been forgotten, or if it was a menace to their own lives and property." The "worst of these dillies," he wrote, was the pedestal honoring Johns Hopkins, which sat in the middle of Charles near Johns Hopkins University. Nicknamed "The Birthday Cake," the Hopkins shaft had caused a number of fatalities prior to Barnes' arrival. Defying his critics, he moved it to its present-day niche at Charles and 33rd Street, where, Barnes wrote, "the sports fan could view it in awe and admiration . . . after the Orioles had lost to the visiting team."

Such cracks, published after Barnes made his escape to New York, did not endear him to Baltimoreans, but when he died of a heart attack in 1968 all was forgiven. Barnes "turned this city upside down and righted it again," a cabbie told The Sun for its obituary. "Traffic's never been the same, and it's a damn good thing."

Ironically, considering his pervasive impact on Baltimore, Barnes is best remembered today for the so-called "Barnes Dance," the simple practice of stopping all automotive traffic at an intersection to allow pedestrians to cross in all directions, even diagonally if they wish. Intersections accommodating the walker-friendly interregnum were once fairly common, but today there are just a baker's dozen scattered around town (most notably in the Lexington Market area), with no special markings to distinguish them from other junctions. They're vestiges of a time when Baltimore's sidewalks were busier. Thanks in part to Henry Barnes, people these days find it easier to drive.

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