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Baltimore's Mount Vernon Place:  A Jewel?

Light is all the brighter when it contrasts with Darkness
 

You might start your Mount Vernon walk by strolling along Saratoga Street, 200 block west. Your eye will immediately fall on a couple of Candle Shops: Grandpa's and nearby, Grandma's. Their windows give promise of magic-on-demand, a candle for burning to every conceivable saint for every conceivable purpose under heaven. Looks Catholic but Not. In a way, maybe. You have to cross the street to Park Ave. and Saratoga to see real Catholic: St. Alphonsus Church. In their vestibule and throughout the nave, you can also burn candles before grave if not graven images of a variety of saints. St. Alphonsus does not completely genuflect to Vatican II. One of its Sunday services is the Tridentine Mass. Years ago the church building remained open all day, what with people making novenas and downtown

   Candles and Much More!

shoppers needing to set down their bags a minute. The church is an experience worth savoring.
    Wander up Park Avenue. The 300 and 400 blocks once housed a vibrant Chinatown. The street was dotted with Chinese restaurants; e.g. White Rice Inn. The China Doll might not have been the tastiest of the lot, but it stayed open until close to 4 a.m. A bowl of wonton soup hit the spot if you had been  out clubbing until 2 a.m. closedown time. An odd place to be at 3 a.m. but one felt relatively safe. In more recent times, a young child was shot to death in that very block, bullets fired in the fog of a drug war. You feel less safe. A block up is Mulberry Street. At the corner of Tyson (an alley) and Mulberry is a remnant of the beat culture of the 60's --Martick's. The building seems empty.

            Along Park Avenue

For a young college gal coming down from Towson or Goucher, straight long hair, black tights,  a couple of quotes from Sartre or Camus, and gold-tipped Sobranie cigarettes would serve as your credentials. For guys, any kind of beard would work. The hair could also be long. The jazz combo was more than passable. The beat generation bar closed even before the 60's were out. Morris Martick later reopened the place as a French restaurant. I have a friend who dined there in recent years.  She and her small group were the only customers. An eternity of time passed, after which the octogenarian owner produced the meals and then remained at the table to talk. After closing the beat joint, Mr. Martick actually traveled to Paris and learned French cuisine. Some say he wanted to get away from the Martick's customers.

   A lonely-looking Marticks

The Central Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street was a wonderful world in itself before the Archbishop's soup kitchen directly across the street filled the library seats with hollow faced men who sometimes stared, sometimes snored, people who had so many needs including lifebuoy. These poor souls did not seem dangerous but some readers were intimidated. The library often shows films. One Sunday afternoon the film was about the Nazi Holocaust.  The audience was a 50-50 mix: half soup-

kitchen patrons whiling away the hours before supper;  the other half attendees who had traveled to downtown Baltimore because of special interest in the subject of the film.  All attendees were well-behaved, but the street people tended to chortle at the wrong times in the documentary; e.g. a Nazi bragging about lampshades, soap, someone's uncle....the others perceived no humor in this somber viewing. Recently the soup kitchen, Our Father's Place, has found a new home three blocks east, almost under the JFX at Madison Street, near the city jail. The hungry and the homeless are now largely removed from one's sight.  Hunger and homelessness of course remain.

In our wanderings around Mount Vernon, we are searching for the arcane, at the Theosophical Society in Maryland, which occupies the 2nd floor of 523 N. Charles, is as arcane as one can get.  Every Friday at 8 p.m. attendees sit around a round sťance-type table in a room lifted from Victorian England. The subjects run the gamut from The Secret Doctrine by Blavatsky (founded TS in 1851) to Buddhism to Giordano  Bruno. I've heard it said that every crank and eccentric in the city has cycled through 523 at one time or another. Since I am in that category, how could I tell? (I'm using "crank" here in the British sense:  not cranky, rather someone who might seize hold of an "overvalued idea" and make a career of espousing it.). Directly across the street at 518 N. Charles is an entertainment establishment and restaurant whose current name alludes me. When it was in its prime, it was a bookstore called Louie's. There was dining in the back and upstairs. After the gargantuan bookstores like Border's and Barnes/Noble hit the area, the book component could not compete.

    Theosophical:
   523 N. Charles St.

I have no dark tale to attach to Louie's, but being Baltimore, stuff happens. Keri, a lovely young woman who worked at Louie's became the victim of a grisly murder. The murder did not occur at the bookstore but the victim with her striking good looks and long red hair might have first been noticed there. The killer was never apprehended.
For 40 years, the Buttery was at the S. E. corner of Charles and Center to serve diners. In earlier years it was a respectable place. By the l990's, though, a medical doctor named Hector, the then president of the Theosophical Society, felt the need to hold court at the Buttery after meetings to "raise the vibrations of the place." You could get breakfast at any hour, grab a cup of coffee. You could sit at a counter or sit at a booth and watch people stroll up and down Charles St.
The heart of Mount Vernon Place is the square area of 4 blocks: 600 and 700 block N. Charles and the unit blocks east and west on Monument Street.

The Monument St. homes are very stately. The Engineers' Club, the stunning  Methodist church with its dramatic steeples, and Peabody Institute are all here. The Walters Art Gallery backs into the 600 block N. Charles. The Washington Monument intersects Mt. Vernon Place.

       A deserted Alley                Mt. Vernon Square

The tall George Washington Monument intersects the four squares. At Christmas time, the monument is decorated and lighted, always a big news event. The politicians emerge from City Hall to be seen, whereas the hordes of bystanders merely come to see. Many decades ago a man got bopped over his head (fatal) for taking too long at a drinking fountain in the eastern stretch of the park.

The Baltimore Flower Mart has been able to reincarnate itself, and once more uses Mount Vernon for its annual May festival. .A peppermint stick in a half-lemon used to be the marquee food event. The festival is enjoyed by all. Such was not always the case. In the late l960's the smaller, much more sedate Flower Mart was interrupted by gangs of marauding teenagers. A hasty change of venue was called for.

In the warm months, a variety of events are held at Mount Vernon Place including the annual Book Fair and concerts.  First Thursdays also bring happy crowds to the streets; museums and shops stay open late. In July a much larger whole weekend event, Artscape, is held in the neighborhood of Mount Royal, just north of Mount Vernon. It's usually as hot as Hades at Artscape, but the crowd keeps its cool. These kinds of activities show the city at its best.
There is a caution, though. Never live too long in one city. You remember too much. You learn too much. Way back before 605 N. Charles was part of Peabody Institute, it housed an eclectic assortment of tenants. A friend of mine, a newly minted teacher from Towson State, lived in a well-secured basement flat

 4 separate locks on her back door. One day this meager lodging was ransacked, locks and all. The hinges were lifted. The crooks couldn't have picked a slimmer bone. Enid didn't even own a TV!  They left their DNA in the form of feces everywhere but the toilet. A sympathetic policeman explained that such residue is not uncommon at robbery sites because the thieves can be literally scared shitless. Nothing personal....The Stafford hotel on Charles Street has also seen better days. One  man of my acquaintance, one of the Theosophists, resided there for years. He was found dead in his room, a probable suicide. I'm sure his was not the only body carried out of the Stafford feet-first.

    Stafford Hotel. 700 block Charles St.

Perhaps it is time to leave the glitter of the Charles Street lights and restaurants and take a break, amble two blocks west on Monument Street, to Park Ave. You are at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church.  Masses are offered at least daily. The incense can be so strong as to set off the smoke alarm. This truly has happened. Fire engines are automatically dispatched. A statue of King Charles I of England, the one who got beheaded, stands at the back of the nave. Candles can be lit. Charles 1 is considered an Anglo-Catholic martyr. Seriously, Solemn High Mass at l0 a.m. Sundays is good value for one's time. Some people consider Episcopalians "Catholic Lite." At G.A.S.P. it is "Catholic Heavy."  You get Stations of the Cross in Lent, Benediction with the monstrance, Hail Marys, the works!

Charles I  Statue
      in Gasp
  Stained Glass    Window -Gasp

The 800 block Park Avenue and nearby streets were once known as the Meat Rack, though I have never known an abattoir to be in the vicinity. There have long been a number of gay men and gay bars here, however. The grandfather of them all is Leon's. It has stood at 870 Park Avenue forever!  The Hippo at 1 W. Eager is the city's oldest gay disco. Shortly after its 2 a.m. closing time, especially on a weekend, the unit block of W. Eager will be swarming with men. This is decision time: do you want to take someone home with you?  Other gay restaurant/bars in the vicinity are Mount Vernon Stable in the 900 block N. Charles and Grand Central Station in the 1000 block.  This list is far from all-inclusive.  GLCCB, The Gay, Lesbian (and bisexual and transgender) Community Center of Baltimore, 200 block W. Chase Street, is a book store and information hub. It hosts dozens of meetings for the diverse groups in its community: e.g. women, older men, transgender persons. It holds fun activities as well as support groups. It assists with medical problems. ((You have probably noticed, and this is not gay-specific,  --  no one actually has problems anymore. Instead, they have issues. "He had kidney issues and needed a kidney transplant. " ))

A few Remembrances of Restaurants Past: Uncle Charlie's was trendy in the 1970's. You entered on Madison Street, descending a couple of steps. For a couple of diners, those steps were like crossing the River Styx. At least 2 patrons left by ambulance. In all fairness, one of these was an older lady whose evenings out often ended at the closest  E.R. A pal of mine once  deposited a pool of sick as we exited to the curses of a waitress. Once outside, a passerby reached for the gagging woman's pocketbook. I grabbed her and the pocketbook as we jumped into a conveniently cruising taxi. These experiences were exceptions. The upscale crowd filled up the place as they talked about the play they had attended at Center Stage. I do not know what precipitated Uncle Charlie's closing....The passing of the Mount Vernon Restaurant, its intimate, dark wooden booths beyond the bar, is mourned to this day. It was one of those restaurants you might go to when you really did not feel like dressing up and spending a lot of money to go to a restaurant.....The Harvey House, at 920 N. Charles Street, was also a Baltimore institution. At the front was a piano bar where patrons gathered to sing. Somewhere in the 1990's Harvey House became Mughal Gardens. For more on Harvey House, please read about the woman who failed to attend her own party:  http://www.baltimoretimeline.com/murders.htm.  You will find no traces of the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube, once at 913 N. Charles St. A place like this should never have been torn down. New generations of young persons would have discovered and embraced it just like my mother's generation did, so long ago.      (DRB)