Two years ago, during bicentennial commemorations for the War of 1812, I was struck by how important the waterfront is to Baltimore. That might seem like an odd thing for a Baltimorean to say, but unless you own waterfront property, work near it or regularly take visitors to see it, you take it for granted.
Next thing you know, there's some huge event at the Inner Harbor, and you're awed, along with all the other tourists, by the coolness that is the Baltimore waterfront.
The Star-Spangled Sailabration was such a glorious event — with thousands of visitors enjoying fine mid-June weather, tall ships and Blue Angels — that it even impressed Baltimore's numerous cynics.
Sailabration came in the midst of the debate about having an IndyCar race on our downtown streets. The first Grand Prix occurred on Labor Day weekend 2011, leaving a trail of financial problems and raising doubt about whether there would be encores.
Along the way, Sailabration made a big splash, confirming that Baltimore should stick to promoting its waterfront and its port heritage, not a car race. The nationally televised Grand Prix was near the harbor — and the harbor appeared in some camera shots — but it wasn't the main stage, and none of the cars had pretty sails.
The Grand Prix won't be here this year or next. I doubt we'll see IndyCars on Light Street again.
But what we will see, as soon as this September, are more sails. The Star-Spangled Spectacular will be a 10-day festival on the 200th anniversary of the battle that inspired our national anthem. There will be more tall ships, naval vessels, the Blue Angels again, concerts and, on Sept. 13, fireworks over Fort McHenry.
Barring a weather disaster, it should be another stellar moment in the city's renaissance, with, among other positives, an immeasurable carry-over to property values along the waterfront and beyond.
Waterfront property has always been savored. But in the port of Baltimore, so much of it was industrial for so long that the potential for residential life on or near the urban waterfront is still a new concept. It's a grand reclamation project, from Key Highway to Harbor Point to Dundalk, wherever the old manufacturing ramparts of the city have fallen to make way, potentially, for homes and offices.
It's great to hear that, in an effort to bust an old, negative stereotype and attract new homeowners, the Dundalk Renaissance Corp. has launched a marketing campaign to spread the word about the affordability of housing there, Dundalk's small-town aesthetic, its close proximity to the city and its 43 miles of waterfront.
The waterfront is a big selling point. Note from reporter Alison Knezevich's story in Wednesday's Baltimore Sun: Larry Rosenberg, developer of 39 townhomes with a marina, calls Dundalk's "magnificent waterfront" its greatest asset (besides Captain Harvey's cheese steak subs).
Who can argue with that?
Anyone would love to have a home that overlooks water. I have no doubt that more urban waterfront is going to open up in the coming years. One of these days, the Westport waterfront, on the southern rim of the city, will become a hot area. Waterfront development — with homes, apartments, recreational access to the harbor — will be an important draw for new residents and, thus, the population growth necessary for Baltimore's long-term health.
But here's the thing: We love the waterfront, but not the water so much.
I mean, in theory we love the water. In theory, we're all water huggers at heart.
We'd like to see the "swimmable, fishable" harbor that the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has established as a goal by 2020. Here's the partnership's ambitious vision: "A truly recreational harbor with green edges and running paths; trash-free open waters for boating, fishing, and swimming; shoreline marsh that shelters crabs and herons; and a harbor teeming with fish that are safe for human consumption. The harbor should be an overall centerpiece of city pride, and a resource for citizens and tourists alike."
But it's a long way — more than five years, I'm afraid — from happening.
The latest grade on the harbor was an F, and that came from the Healthy Harbor campaign, the collaboration of the Waterfront Partnership, Blue Water Baltimore, the city and Baltimore County. The report card said the harbor still has all kinds of issues, from trash to sewage to chemicals to algae.
I realize that some people want the view of the water no matter what the quality of the water.
But just imagine how much more valuable waterfront property would be — and how much more valuable all property in the region eventually would be — if we mustered the political will to make the harbor really swimmable and fishable. Think of the potential for more recreation and tourism — a harbor full of sails and kayaks and gondolas, a destination for people who won't just look at the water but use it.
It's fine to love the waterfront; we should love the water, too.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.Copyright © 2015, CT Now