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The Nose

Charles Village R.F.D.

Posted 9/2/1998

It was hot. It was stuffy. It was crowded. It was Tuesday, Aug. 25, and the Lovely Lane Methodist Church social hall was filled with Charles Village residents, all eager to hear how part of their neighborhood could be turned into Mayberry.

Well, sort of. Front and center was a team of business and community-revitalization consultants from National Main Street, a nonprofit organization developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation; they were on hand because the Charles Village Benefits District has been designated one of five Main Street Maryland communities by the state. (Charles Village, Oakland, Easton, Mount Rainier, and Cumberland were selected based on revitalization proposals submitted to the state Department of Housing and Community Development). National Main Street has worked with 1,400 communities across the country and boasts an impressive record of helping embattled and often boarded-up commercial areas rebound. The idea, in many cases, is to transform beleaguered shopping districts into the kind of quaint and tidy Main Street where Barney Fife patrolled and Floyd the Barber cut hair.

Charles Village's designated "main street" is a diversely troubled strip that runs up North Charles Street from 20th to 25th Street, turns east on 25th, then runs north along Greenmount Avenue through the heart of Waverly. The out-of-town consultants had spent the previous few days touring this zigzag corridor, interviewing business owners, residents, and politicos. That evening they spoke on how their four-point program of organizing (implementing broad-based leadership), design (improving/coordinating aesthetics), promotion (marketing the street), and economic restructuring (attracting new business and retaining the old) can invigorate this tired shopping area.

"The malls stole many ideas from the older commercial districts," said Cindy Stone, Main Street Maryland coordinator. "And now we steal the smarter aspects from them."

A video showed how Boston neighborhoods have used the program to good advantage. ("If Boston can do it, so can we," Stone enthused.) And a slide show illustrated the area's problems and potential.

It all sounded terrific, but when the Nose had a moment alone with National Main Street's Mac Nichols, we asked him about the drug problem many Main Streets face. No, not drug dealers moving in with crack and blunts, but drugstores--Rite Aid, CVS, Walgreen--moving in with big-box buildings that drive out older businesses. Indeed, CVS plans to do just that at the corner of 25th and Charles, erecting a pharmacy at the expense of six rowhouses, two of which now house bookstores that are part of 25th Street's fabled "Book Block" (Mobtown Beat, 8/19).

"Getting retailers to fit the communities rather than have communities forced to fit the retailers is a struggle," Nichols acknowledged--you don't want to discourage new businesses from coming in, but you don't want them to displace historic buildings and established stores. The 25th Street bookstores, in developing a group identity and related promotions (the book block banners that line the strip), have taken steps straight out of the National Main Street playbook. But these, and indeed all Main Street efforts, are for naught if CVS and the other pharmacy giants can indiscriminately replace 100-year-old storefronts with cinder-block, cookie-cutter chain stores.

We erect fake Main Streets out of whole cloth (such as The Avenue in White Marsh) while the real ones are bulldozed or abandoned. Even Mayberry's mythical Main Street is on the ropes. Sheriff Andy Taylor's hometown was based on star Andy Griffith's birthplace, the very real Mount Airy, N.C. Griffith isn't there anymore--but Wal-Mart is.

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