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Sizzlin Feature

On Top of the World, Looking Down on Crustaceans

360 Degrees of Baltimore From the Trade Center's Reopened Acme

Sizzlin Summer 2002

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By Natalie Davis | Posted 5/22/2002

If you visited the observation level on the 27th floor of Baltimore's World Trade Center before its recent renovation, you probably found the place cramped. Exhibits for Baltimore attractions and a gift shop geared to tourists filled the floor space and often detracted from the best reason for seeing what's called the Top of the World. Not anymore. The floor, previously raised in places, has been flattened. A lone exhibit for the Great Blacks in Wax Museum is restricted to one small area of a wood-paneled wall. It's a nice diversion, this tribute to African-American inventors and medical professionals. But it isn't why we're here. We're here for the view.

And man, what a view. The building at 401 E. Pratt St., just east of Harborplace, offers visitors a breathtaking 360-degree bird's-eye view of the best of Charm City. On a recent visit, my son and I lingered at each of the observation level's five sides, ooohing and aaahing at assorted wonders (all pointed out by my 6-year-old): the sharklike visage of the USS Torsk, the ESPN Zone, an on-the-move water taxi, the top of Mount Vernon's Washington Monument, the TV Hill towers. It's a thrilling time for David and me, but a lonely one. It turns out that everyone around us--save the volunteer tour guides--is from out of town.

This is somewhat unfortunate--and not because we mind tourists--but somewhat understandable. Until Sept. 11, most New Yorkers probably didn't give much thought to their World Trade Center either. Standing high over lower Manhattan, the Twin Towers created a stir when their ceremonial ribbon was snipped in 1973, but novelty soon turned into complacency. Over time, people worked at the towers, shopped there, dined there, caught the subway there, walked past the complex daily--but in all likelihood, the vast majority of those who made a point of going to the top were from out of town. In the abstract, the locals may have appreciated the towers as an integral part of the skyline, but practically speaking they largely ignored them. Until Sept. 11. Since then, they have never stood taller.

Baltimore's World Trade Center--there are nearly 300 so-named buildings around the world--still stands, as New York's did, as a beacon of global commerce. It's a familiar sight for downtown visitors and workers and, frankly, the structure is damned impressive: Designed by noted architect I.M. Pei and first opened in 1979, it stands 30 stories high--423 feet aboveground--which makes it the world's tallest pentagonal edifice.

The Top of the World averages between 130,000 and 140,000 visitors per year, says Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts spokesperson Tracy Baskerville. Most of them, she says, do not call Baltimore home. The promotion office regularly promotes the site as the first stop a visitor to Baltimore should make. But one reason for the observation deck's still-in-progress renovation is to make the experience more relevant to people who live here, she says. Hence pruning the exhibits and clearing floor space.

"It's all about what you see when you look through the windows," Baskerville says. "That's what will resonate with natives. It will help people graphically understand how spectacular their city is."

This makes sense. Tourists surely enjoy the panoramic views of nearby attractions they likely will visit, such as the National Aquarium or the B&O Railroad Museum. But for hometown folks--well, at least for David and me--the thrill is seeing sites that speak to our own lives and to our city's rich history: faraway Bolton Hill, where we once lived; Mercy Hospital, where my son was born; battle-scarred but unbowed Fort McHenry; the stately Shot Tower. Much is visible to the naked eye, but drop a quarter to use one of the telescopic viewfinders: You'll see a skyline meshing old and new Baltimore that offers a nonchronological look at the city's life--and your own. What could be more fascinating or important?

The World Trade Center's importance--and its need for security--was underscored following the Sept. 11 attacks. The observation deck had just reopened in June after being closed three months for the first phase of the renovation, which included removing view obstructions, sprucing up the site with a fresh paint job and new carpeting, making it handicapped-accessible, and adding an updated lighting and sound system. Three months later, the national nightmare forced the doors shut again.

"We relied on experts to tell us what we needed to do to keep the building safe," says Judi Scioli, spokesperson for the Maryland Port Administration, which resides in and manages the state-owned building. "City and state police, port and airport authorities, the Maryland Department of Transportation, national law enforcement, the Coast Guard, Customs--they came together in a spirit of cooperation that continues today. And now, it's a safer building."

The changes seem minimally invasive. Scioli says people working in the building or attending trade seminars must show a photo identification card and sign in to gain admittance. Bag checks are mandatory for all, including Top of the World visitors. And there is an increased security presence. But it didn't strike me or anyone else I spoke to at the Trade Center, visitors and staff alike, as a big deal. "Increased security is a fact of life now," Scioli says. "I really think people feel more secure and are accustomed to it."

After a low-key re-reopening last month, the Top of the World is back in business, and Baskerville says improvements continue. There are plans for new exhibits on Baltimore history and educational activities for field-tripping students. But the focus, she promises, will be the view.

"The low admission cost makes it the perfect place for Baltimoreans to go," says booster Baskerville. "Come in the middle of the day and just sit and look out. Take a good look at your city. See the neighborhoods; see how beautiful it is. The Top of the World is the place where you'll remember why Baltimore is so great."

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the World Trade Center's Top of the World observation deck is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $4, $3 for seniors, and $2 for kids 12 and under. For more information, call (410) 837-8439 or visit www.bop.org/topworld.

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