6.13.2009

Unexpected Treasures Along the Way in Baltimore


I usually don't like to write about client work mid-engagement, but I wanted to make a point about cities in this post that a current project speaks to perfectly. Our firm has been hired to quantify the negative economic impact on the city of Baltimore resulting from panhandling. This has been a fascinating effort, although I'm daunted by the task and am trying to remember that, within a loaded, complex, and multi-layered issue, our job is just to cover a few of the economic consequences associated with panhandling.

One can argue there is some negative effect associated with people choosing to not come into town to recreate, whether nearby suburban residents, tourists, or conventioneers and their families. More subtly, there may be a universe of consumers who will still come to Baltimore, but limit themselves to one or two common attractions, thinking them safe enough to handle and considering any other forays to be too risky. There may also be a universe of consumers who are a little bit more adventuresome, in that they are willing to split their time at multiple hubs; and yet, the threat of aggressive panhandling may cause them to partake of these multiple sets of attractions on separate days, and/or shuttle between them by car or taxi, thus robbing them (oops, bad choice of words) of the opportunity to chance upon unexpected treasures along the way.

And isn't that the beautiful thing about intricate and compact cities like Baltimore or Philadelphia or Boston? Every time I have gone down to Baltimore for this assignment, I have left a little slice of time to see sights, and to walk to them, and as a result I have become quite enamored with the city. Its history and architecture evoke similar themes as what I see in Philadelphia. I was wowed by what I had pre-planned to see (the incredible Walters Art Museum and a nice little exhibit on Edgar Allan Poe at the Pratt Library) as well as by what I was instructed to see once I got down there (the breathtaking library at the Peabody Institute - see photo). I even chanced upon a little pocket park dedicated to Pope John Paul II, and had the best sweet potato I've ever had at Milton's Grill. Not bad for a couple of hours' time!

And so I wish that for people who come to Philadelphia. That they'll go off the beaten path of wherever their hotel or conference is, and do more than just hit the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. That they'll chance upon attractions and sights just by walking from Point A to Point B. And that the walking itself, far from just being a functional thing to get you from Point A to Point B, would itself become a desired activity, as you enjoy people-watching and building-gawking and historic marker-reading.

Harder to do in cities when panhandling enters into the equation. And harder to do in suburbs and in more car-oriented urban settings, since low density and wide boulevards deter the sort of walking around that leads to chance encounters with pocket parks and elaborate architecture and sweet potatoes. Or, as I had previously posted, it's a good thing when your place is set up so that more is more, rather than less.

I'm not by nature a thrill-seeker; you'll not find a person who knows me who would characterize me as spontaneous. But give me intricate and compact places where I can find unexpected treasures along the way, over bland and predictable amenities, however impressive, any day of the week.
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