City’s history below the surface comes to light
Reconstruction of sewer system exposes a complex past
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.