City’s his­tory be­low the sur­face comes to light

Re­con­struc­tion of sewer sys­tem ex­poses a com­plex past

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Jac­ques Kelly jac­ques.kelly@balt­

Any­one who at­tempts to drive along Franklin or Mul­berry streets in down­town Bal­ti­more these days knows these routes are in a tan­gle.

A seg­ment of the city’s sewer sys­tem in this area failed in April and de­vel­oped a sec­ond crack in July.

The tem­po­rary fix and the con­struc­tion for the per­ma­nent cor­rec­tion have this part of town in trans­porta­tion leg irons. It’s 4,100 feet of in­fra­struc­ture agony.

As a walker and non­driver, I of­ten come upon the sewer re­pair con­struc­tion sites. There are wooden board­walks that take pedes­tri­ans over the tem­po­rary pipes.

It’s easy to ob­serve the in­fra­struc­ture — big black tem­po­rary pipes, known as by­pass mains, wind through this neigh­bor­hood.

A closer look, though, re­veals a his­tory of this area, a cu­ri­ous part of old Bal­ti­more that’s part Se­ton Hill and part Mount Ver­non.

Bal­ti­more was one of the last large cities to build a com­pre­hen­sive sewer sys­tem. Its main com­po­nent, an 80-inch-di­am­e­ter tube con­structed of bricks and mor­tar about 1906, has of­ten re­vealed its age and frag­ile con­di­tion.

A sec­tion frac­tured in April along Cen­tre Street.

In July, a trunk line cracked un­der Mul­berry Street. The street col­lapsed and a deep sink­hole ap­peared.

The other day, I took a self-guided tour of the sewer re­pairs at Mul­berry and Greene streets. Now­closed for the work, Mul­berry once fun­neled 32,000 driv­ers a day across down­town Bal­ti­more.

The main area for the con­struc­tion is a deep dig out­side the old Congress Ho­tel, at Franklin near Howard.

Here you can still ob­serve traces of the old bal­cony of the Mary­land Theater, de­mol­ished 65 years ago.

Walk­ing the area, I was re­minded of a news photo of a glam­orous cou­ple, nov­el­ist F. Scott Fitzger­ald and his wife, Zelda, taken in the lobby here. Ac­tor Henry Fonda mar­ried fel­low per­former Mar­garet Sulla­van when both were per­form­ing at the old theater.

Other his­tory is here, too. The tem­po­rary pipe, about a 36 inches in di­am­e­ter, is be­ing fit­ted through a chal­leng­ing space un­der Howard Street’s light rail tracks and above the Howard Street Tun­nel.

The tun­nel is an­other one of Bal­ti­more’s in­fra­struc­ture land­marks that drew na­tional cov­er­age in 2001 when freight cars de­railed in it and caught fire.

The cen­tury-old sewer stretches some­what north­ward to­ward Cen­tre Street. It passes by the cor­ner of Park Av­enue and Franklin Street.

Walk­ing the area, I thought of a 1997 ar­ti­cle I wrote about this in­ter­sec­tion, not­ing that a rup­tured gas line ex­ploded, “pro­duc­ing a spec­tac­u­lar 40-foot col­umn of flame that burned for more than five hours, forc­ing the evac­u­a­tion of about 265 res­i­dents from nearby build­ings and promis­ing to in­con­ve­nience down­town res­i­dents and com­muters for sev­eral days.”

Long ago, I learned a les­son: In Bal­ti­more, you never re­ally know what lies be­neath your feet — or what drama can sur­face from the depths.

The day of that rup­tured gas line was a spec­tac­u­lar show of ur­ban vul­ner­a­bil­ity. A build­ing had to be de­mol­ished.

Nine­teen years later, tem­po­rary pipes wrap about this cor­ner.

They are, per­haps, an­other sign of vul­ner­a­bil­ity, but also of re­build­ing and im­prove­ment.

En­gi­neers work­ing on the sewer re­pairs have in­stalled a tem­po­rary above-ground sys­tem, but they will use a new tech­nol­ogy — de­scribed by the city as “cured, in-place pipe lin­ing” — to re­pair the old 1906 sewer. The fix is done in­ter­nally. Bal­ti­more is built of strong stuff. Within a stone’s throw of sew­ers dat­ing from the early 1900s, a new res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment, 500 Park Av­enue, is ris­ing at this cor­ner.

Once the area is fixed and repaved, Mount Ver­non res­i­dents won’t think of past mis­ery lurk­ing be­low the asphalt.

At least for a while, one hopes.


This is a view of the sink­hole that formed on West Mul­berry Street be­tween Paca and Greene streets when the pave­ment col­lapsed in July. Re­pairs are con­tin­u­ing.

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