A few years ago I raised my hand at an auction and bought a box of 19th-century sepia-toned landscape photographs. After hours of looking at them, I detected that they had been taken not far away, in the heart of the Jones Falls Valley in Baltimore City, before an elevated highway and 125 years of development intervened.
The other morning I was standing in the bottom floor of the old cotton warehouse at the Mount Vernon Mill on Falls Road, an amazing property that will make its debut this spring as Mill No. 1, a residential and office complex. Over the past half-year, workers have been performing a construction miracle here. Concrete cutters opened a huge vista in the old warehouse and created a window that overlooks the Jones Falls and its deep hillsides. It was a view — or one close to it — that I'd seen on the 19th-century photos.
I had a revelation that morning as I approached Mill No. 1, which sits at the base of a hill below the Stieff Silver building and another former textile operation known as the Mill Center:
What if this valley could be returned to more of its 19th-century appearance — or was at least decluttered of the city's winter highway salt truck depot and a paving contractor's vehicle yard? Is it time to ask — now that $40 million is going into Mill No. 1, after millions more have been invested into the other ancient stone mills and foundries along the valley, beginning in the mid-1980s — that this remarkable Baltimore neighborhood get some respect from planners and those who make big decisions?
I call the valley a neighborhood because it is fast becoming one. The new clerestory atop the Mount Vernon Mill's roof is designed to become apartment kitchens and other living areas. Workers installed a footbridge over the falls last week. It connects the west side with the east side in the rambling and fascinating Mill No. 1 Mount Vernon complex, a place that has the feel of a hillside fortification or minor castle.
I also observed landscapers clearing out invasive plants as they added new trees to the rocky hillside here. Even on a raw January morning, it was not hard to envision the rugged Jones Falls Valley on a May afternoon.
I joked with Joe Palazzi, superintendent with Kinsley builders, and Craig Hoffheins, his assistant, about how on a day later this year we all might be seated at a table at one of the two eating places planned for this mill's waterside cavity. Each will overlook the stream when a restaurateur commits to the spot.
The growth of restaurants in the Jones Falls Valley has been something of a phenomenon. They have followed the residential and office growth here, which you might argue began with the Village of Cross Keys in 1962, itself following the growth of Roland Park, Mount Washington, Hampden, Woodberry, Remington and other neighborhoods.
As the cotton mills closed, their industrial shells found other purposes. I think of the Mill Center and of the Himmelrich family's work at the Mount Washington and Meadow mills, the Manekin-Seawall Development work at the Union (Druid) Mill and developer William Struever's inspired reworking of the Poole and Hunt foundry, now called Clipper Mill. (There's another Clipper Mill that will likely be called Whitehall Mill after future reclamation efforts.)
As this long and twisting neighborhood has taken shape, I've had Daniel Raffle's "haute" dogs on Falls Road, a burger at the Mount Washington Tavern, winter vegetables at Spike Gjerde's Woodberry Kitchen, cauliflower at McCabe's, and the broccoli rabe at Birroteca, a new restaurant that is always mobbed despite being hard to find, even with a map or a GPS system, in an obscure place on the Falls hillside. (One day I'll be turned loose, without guilt, at the Mary Sue candy warehouse complex, also in the valley.)
I like to explore the Jones Falls Valley by starting in the south, at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, and working my way northward along the curving and overgrown banks. Like so much of Baltimore, it seems untamed and underinvested, but worth the effort.