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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Historicizing Harborplace: A History of Local Exclusion and the Future of the Project

BHW 11: April 15, 2023


A photo of one of the Harborplace pavilions in Baltimore City's Inner Harbor.
Figure 1. Ken Lund, “Harborplace, Inner Harbor,” 2008, Creative Commons [1]

At the time of writing, the redevelopment of the Harborplace complex in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is a topic of conversation in the press and around the city. In February 2023, the architectural firm in charge of the current project put out a call for input together with the Baltimore Banner. They asked Baltimoreans, “What do you want from Harborplace redevelopment?” [2] As the Banner reported a month prior, the current project’s goal is to revitalize “the retail and dining pavilions that helped make the Inner Harbor a huge tourist draw after their 1980 opening but which have recently struggled with vacancies, disrepair and an outdated feel.” [3] Harborplace was also a topic of animated discussion during its initial development over forty years ago. On July 3, 1980, the day after Harborplace’s opening day, the front page of the Baltimore Sun read, “At the Inner Harbor, they have taken what once was a sewer and ringed it with a poem.” [4] A week later, a Baltimore Afro-American front page headline stated, “Oops! Baltimore’s renewal leaves much to be desired.” [5] How do these differing perspectives speak to ongoing debates about Baltimore City identities? What does the history of Harborplace and the associated Inner Harbor redevelopment project tell us about the area’s current situation? By examining these histories, much can be learned about the Inner Harbor’s place in Baltimore City narratives.

Promoters and some media outlets framed the Harborplace opening using a rhetoric of rebirth. Baltimore became the Renaissance city. [6] As historian Jon C. Teaford argues, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer became a “messiah mayor,” a savior appearing in a time of need to lift the city from decay. [7] This perceived resurrection led TIME magazine to deem Mayor Schaefer “one of the most effective urban executives in the U.S. today” in 1981. [8] Rebirth rhetoric created unrealistic expectations for a shopping and entertainment complex. While these complexes brought new visitors to cities, stimulated some downtown development, and added appeal to downtown living, they could not address much more than this. [9] Some recognized this at the time, take for instance the lead opinion piece in the Baltimore Afro-American three days after Harborplace’s opening. It stated, “Much propaganda and boosterism accompanies the inauguration of Harborplace as an instrument of economic growth and a possible major employer in town . . . when the nation’s economy and Baltimore’s worsening position in that overall picture is painfully felt by many of our residents.” [10] This editorial shows remarkable insight into the project’s uneven and sparse benefits for the people of Baltimore. Perhaps this is part of why its 2023 developer is emphasizing creating a space that all Baltimoreans will use and enjoy. [11]

The lack of developer or city consultation with Baltimoreans about Harborplace did not stop locals from claiming the space in their own way, much to the chagrin of city officials. In the early 1980s, Harborplace’s first years coincided with the rise of hip-hop culture in East Coast cities, especially in Black communities. As historian Aaron Cowan writes, “A common theme of early hip-hop culture was the reappropriation of urban space.” The City of Baltimore took Inner Harbor urban space away from local communities for consumerist development. Then by gathering in this space the people of Baltimore claimed it back. Harborplace had plenty of hard surfaces and crowds, creating an ideal stage and automatic audience for hip-hop performances. [12] This chain of events also created an unfortunate staging ground for systemic racism in the city. Public historian Mary Rizzo points out that the use of the space by local hip-hop artists did not necessarily take away from the development’s goal of keeping tourists away from the city’s downtown. [13] Thus, the city would tolerate the artists to an extent, so long as it remained a controlled way for tourists to engage with Baltimore. However, Mayor Schaefer and local police did not hesitate to intervene when they believed this boundary had been crossed. Accordingly, Schaefer issued a memo of concern in May 1981 about loud music and disorder in the Inner Harbor. The police responded with an added presence around Harborplace. [14]

The difference in reactions to the Harborplace opening between the city’s Black and white presses is notable. In general, the historically white Baltimore Sun rejoiced, while the historically Black Baltimore Afro-American expressed skepticism. [15] Some of the latter’s concern had to do with a study conducted by Princeton University professor Richard P. Nathan. According to the Afro-American, the study showed that “The downtown revitalization, which includes last week’s optimistic dedication of the $18 million Harborplace retail development, has not offset decline in other parts of Baltimore.” The paper also noted that the study cited the poor job market and lack of retail sales in the new downtown developments as contributors to the lack of redevelopment success. [16] It is important to avoid overemphasizing a single study, yet what does deserve significant emphasis is the Afro-American editorial team deeming this study worthy of extensive front-page coverage. The editors evidently believed that their primary audience, Baltimore’s Black community, would be interested in these findings. It seems the mostly white city planners and development team were more interested in tourism dollars. As anthropologist and geographer David Harvey argues, this lack of locally engaged investment is jarring given Harborplace’s substantial public funding. It is fair to conclude that such a publicly funded project should benefit the people of the city. [17] In this majority-Black city where systemic racism fostered economic disparity, this emphasis on tourism over local quality of life is directly correlated with race.

The creation of controlled space around Harborplace epitomizes what some scholars call a “tourist bubble.” [18] This is an urban design strategy that seeks to isolate out-of-towners from perceived social issues of the city itself. Shopping malls such as Harborplace are excellent examples of tourist bubbles due to their enclosed nature. As political scientist Dennis R. Judd writes, these bubbles create “defended space even in the midst of urban crime and decay.” [19] Harborplace took this to the next level with a series of secure elevated indoor walkways connecting its pavilions, nearby hotels, and attractions such as the National Aquarium. [20] In May 1981, the Sun reported on the soon to be opened Harborplace walkways with great anticipation. The report beamed, “Soon, it seems, you will be able to walk on your two little feet all the way from the Mount Vernon district to the sacred soil of South Baltimore and Federal Hill without ever crossing a street, waiting for a stoplight or being hamburgered by an impatient driver.” The Sun framed this walkway haven as a great benefit for those who lived or worked downtown. [21] By connecting hotels with the Inner Harbor’s main tourist attractions, the walkways also enabled tourist experiences involving minimal interaction with the city itself. For instance, visitors could walk from their hotel room to the aquarium in the afternoon, then stroll along the walkways to dinner in Harborplace, and perhaps enjoy live entertainment before returning along the walkway back to their room. [22]

Instead of redeveloping the Inner Harbor with Baltimoreans in mind, planners of the 1970s and 1980s built the project around a desired image of the middle- to upper-class American tourist. The result was akin to a theme park in being designed based on a marketable theme, comparable to Disney World’s Tomorrowland or Fantasyland. [23] A Harborland if you will. In fact, in Harborplace’s first year of operation, it attracted more visitors than Disney World. [24] A key means of achieving this marketability was the creation of new nostalgia, meaning nostalgia not significantly connected to actual history. Harborplace created the illusion of a recreated active port and harbor without engaging with the history of the port itself. Surely, a recreation of one of the main hubs of the U.S. domestic slave trade, its shipyards with horrific working conditions, or plumes of industrial pollutants would not appeal to the average tourist. [25] Instead, as historian Alison Isenberg points out, rather than showcasing real history with its unsavory elements, “visitors appreciated environments inspired by nostalgia.” In the Inner Harbor, many historical structures were demolished to make way for artificial tourist nostalgia, or new nostalgia. This “clean slate approach” to historical themes rendered seemingly irrelevant “the dearth of actual structures from the harbor’s past.” [26] A strong example is the docking of the USS Constellation beside Harborplace, a historic ship without significant historical ties to the city. The ship was long believed to have Baltimore origins, a claim since proven untrue. [27] The persistence of the false Baltimore-origins Constellation story further exemplifies the created nostalgia ideal in the Inner Harbor.

Harborplace developer James W. Rouse earned national fame for creating festival marketplaces, a concept he created and Harborplace epitomized. Historian Robert J. Bruggar argues, “Rouse insisted that dreams of economic gain encompass age-old human concerns of improving the quality of life, of making people into a community.” [28] This is reflected in the lack of inclusion for local communities in Harborplace’s history. To the extent that Baltimoreans carved out personal meaning and inclusion in the space, they did so on their own terms. [29] Rouse’s festival marketplace model created shopping districts meant to attract suburbanites back to downtowns, counteracting the impacts of postwar suburbanization on American cities. He debuted this model with the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, before attempting to replicate it in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and elsewhere. [30] The year after Harborplace opened, Rouse made the cover of TIME magazine with the headline, “CITIES ARE FUN!” [31] The cover story asserted, “From early morning until well past midnight, natives and tourists by the thousands turn Baltimore’s Inner Harbor into a continuous celebration.” [32] To the extent that locals did so, it was in this festive celebratory atmosphere. As Judd writes, “In these environments, out-of-town visitors do mingle with local residents, but both groups are prompted to act as if they are, in effect, in a dreamscape far removed from the city that surrounds them.” [33] This form of community engagement is temporary and artificial, without tangible local benefit.

Harborplace was not designed with Baltimore communities in mind, nor did it provide sustainable growth for the city itself. The resulting incongruence between the project and Baltimorean economic futures is a primary lesson offered by this history. Harborplace is a story of Baltimorean exclusion, both financially from its profits and physically from its spaces. For the complex to benefit the people of Baltimore, it must directly integrate with the city’s economy and culture. Baltimore City’s most-recent available economic indicator report is for the first quarter of 2022. It reveals that “Government, Education, and Health Services” made up 50 percent of the city’s employment. By contrast, leisure and hospitality industries made up 8.6 percent. [34] The steady decline and gradual desertion of Harborplace eliminated the service sector jobs it initially brought. [35] There seems to be investor demand for education, health, and government sectors in the city. Perhaps the best way to maximize Harborplace quality local job creation is to advance these industries around the Inner Harbor. However, this does not solve the problem of Baltimore’s population being in a downward spiral since 2014. [36] Nor does it address the jarring disparity in investment benefits for white and Black Baltimoreans. A report from the Urban Institute found that from 2004 to 2016, Baltimore “neighborhoods whose residents are less than 50 percent Black received roughly 3.3 times the investment of neighborhoods with concentrated Black populations.” [37] As we have seen, the original Harborplace likely made these metrics worse. Hopefully future iterations of Harborplace will exceed their predecessors in community engagement and inclusivity. [38]


[1] Ken Lund, “Harborplace, Inner Harbor,” photograph (Baltimore, July 26, 2008), Creative Commons,

[2] Abby Zimmardi, “What do you want from Harborplace redevelopment?,” Baltimore Banner, February 8, 2023,

[3] John-John Williams IV, “Can this developer bring crowds back to Inner Harbor,” Baltimore Banner, January 11, 2023,

[4] Michael Olesker, “Beside the Inner Harbor, the city writes itself a poem of renewed hope,” Baltimore Sun, July 3, 1980, 43,

[5] “Oops! Baltimore’s renewal leaves much to be desired,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 12, 1980, 1,

[6] Jon C. Teaford, The Rough Road to Renaissance: Urban Revitalization in America, 1940-1985 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 9,

[7] Teaford, The Rough Road to Renaissance, 273.

[8] “He Digs Downtown,” TIME, August 24, 1981, The TIME Magazine Vault, 42,

[9] Bernard J. Frieden and Lynne B. Sagalyn, Downtown, Inc. How America Rebuilds Cities (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), 284,

[10] “Harborplace—a mixed blessing,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 5, 1980,

[11] Williams IV, “Can this developer bring crowds back to Inner Harbor,” Baltimore Banner, January 11, 2023.

[12] Aaron Cowan, A Nice Place to Visit: Tourism and Urban Revitalization in the Postwar Rustbelt (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016), 145, Kindle edition.

[13] Mary Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), 140.

[14] Cowan, A Nice Place to Visit, 146.

[15] See Olesker, “Beside the Inner Harbor, the city writes itself a poem of renewed hope,” Baltimore Sun, 43; “Oops! Baltimore’s renewal leaves much to be desired,” Baltimore Afro-American, 1.

[16] “Oops! Baltimore’s renewal leaves much to be desired,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 12, 1980, 1.

[17] David Harvey, “A View from Federal Hill,” in Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes, and Linda Zeidman, eds., The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 239,

[18] See Dennis R. Judd, “Constructing the Tourist Bubble,” in Dennis R. Judd and Susan S. Fainstein, eds., The Tourist City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 36,; Cowan, A Nice Place to Visit, 143.

[19] Judd, “Constructing the Tourist Bubble,” 46.

[20] Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked, 140.

[21] “Focus: Walking in the city without ducking cars,” Baltimore Sun, May 24, 1981,

[22] Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked, 140.

[23] Judd, “Constructing the Tourist Bubble,” 37-38.

[24] “He Digs Downtown,” TIME, August 24, 1981, 42.

[25] See Joshua D. Rothman, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America (New York: Basic Books, 2021), 165; Nicole Fabricant, “Overburdened Bodies and Lands: Industrial Development and Environmental Justice in South Baltimore,” in P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, and Joshua Clark Davis (eds.), Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019), 199, Kindle edition.

[26] Alison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 257-258,

[27] C. Herbert Gilliland, “Prologue,” in William Androse Leonard, USS Constellation on the Dismal Coast: Willie Leonard’s Journal, 1859-1861, ed. C. Herbert Gilliland (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina press, 2013), 19, Kindle edition.

[28] Robert J. Brugger, Maryland: A Middle Temperament, 1634-1980 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 674,

[29] Cowan, A Nice Place to Visit, 128-129.

[30] Isenberg, Downtown America, 271.

[31] TIME Magazine, “James Rouse, Aug. 24, 1981,” Time Magazine Covers Database,,16641,19810824,00.html.

[32] “He Digs Downtown,” TIME, August 24, 1981, 42.

[33] Judd, “Constructing the Tourist Bubble,” 49.

[34] City of Baltimore, “Baltimore Economic Indicator Report: 2022 First Quarter,” Bureau of the Budget and Management Research, 2,

[35] Rizzo, Come and Be Shocked, 140.

[36] City of Baltimore, “Baltimore Economic Indicator Report: 2022 First Quarter,” 2.

[37] Brett Theodos, Eric Hangen, Brady Meixell, and Lionel Foster, “Neighborhood Investment Flows in Baltimore,” September 2020, The Urban Institute, 4,

[38] Williams IV, “Can this developer bring crowds back to Inner Harbor,” Baltimore Banner, January 11, 2023.

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