I looked across the police tape and blinked. Where’s that wall and the iron fence? That piece of 26th Street seemingly, which looked as if it had been constructed by the ancient Romans, was just not there.
On Wednesday, the street collapsed, sending dirt, asphalt and parked cars onto the train tracks below. Now about 20 nearby residents could be kept out of their houses for up to 40 days as the street’s structural integrity is assessed.
This first block of East 26th Street is a special Baltimore place. The railroad was constructed in the 1890s in a depression so that the trains could pass under the intersecting streets. Over time, trees sprouted, adding a not unpleasant ribbon of green through the Remington, Charles Village and Harwood neighborhoods. The people who live in rowhouses facing this little man-made urban valley gained a nice open view. I’ve seen rabbits in there; I presume that the raccoon that recently visited my own backyard arrived from the train cut. (My home is close to the collapsed wall, but far enough away that I did not have to leave.)
The railroad’s stone walls and tunnel portals weathered pleasantly. People don’t realize the heavy volume of freight traffic through here. The mournful sound of the diesel whistles and clanking cars seem somehow reassuring. As a child, I came here to watch trains pass. It was never a long wait.
Constructed by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the line surrendered something of its local recognition when it ceased carrying passengers north of Baltimore in 1958. As I watched the heavy equipment clean up the debris this week, it seemed incredible that this very rail route was used by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip on their 1957 state visit to the U.S. Presidents also regularly rode the B&O through here. It became known as the route of the Royal Blue during an era when trains carried a personal identity. The good food on dining cars didn’t hurt either.
The wall and its plain, but seemingly indestructible, iron fence acquired the nice, old-fashioned patina that seemed to characterize the genteel B&O, the railroad that Baltimoreans so often worked for and loved.
Sometime in the 1940s, the narrow rowhouses on 26th Street changed. Their owners copied then-voguish Tyson Street with painted brick, and an artsy Pastel Row was born. My old friends Margery and Robin Harriss, who owned a house on 26th and another on St. Paul, told me how they selected their paint hues. Margery said she handed a painter a pink Maron’s candy box and told him to copy the color scheme of the old Lexington Street shop.
The street achieved a certain tone. On the Charles Street side, designer John Ford has had his studio for decades. He and his wife, Berthe Ford, have enriched the Walters Art Museum with substantial gifts of Asian art. On the east end at St. Paul was once a fine food market, Green Fairbanks. And during the early 1950s Cold War, the house nearest the grocery shop, at 2610 St. Paul, was revealed to have been owned by Whittaker Chambers, who denounced communism after belonging to the party.
Local artists began showing their canvases and prints along the railroad fence and walls, which was once lined with sycamore trees. On pleasant weekends in the 1950s through the early 1970s, the 26th Street Art Mart was a happening place, sometimes called, tongue in cheek, “Paris on the B&O” in stories in The Baltimore Sun.
And then, in 1967, one of the 26th Street residents, Evening Sun editor Grace Darin, who lived with her sister Rita at 4 E. 26th, created the name Charles Village and began publicizing it through a community newspaper she edited and personally distributed. The street became synonymous with this neighborhood revival of the 1960s and led to the christening of so many more areas that lacked a certain recognition factor.