The Charm of the City

The riots in Baltimore last Monday found me turning on the news in wide-eyed disbelief and biting my nails, as I frantically called and texted my friends. It seems that everything that has to be said has been said a million times over, so I just wanted to take this opportunity to share my personal experience of the city.

Baltimore is a city that I studied and worked in for over three years, until I moved to DC in 2013. I remember the first time I took in the vista of East Baltimore. I had driven up with my father. My brand new car stood out, gleaming silver in a landscape that resembled T.S. Eliot’s waste land. I found the number of boarded-up and abandoned row houses particularly difficult to comprehend.

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I had decided to work at the world’s leading public health institution, and I was proud of my choice. But at the time, I chose not to live in Baltimore. Instead, I lived in suburban Columbia and commuted. I knew nothing then.

In the months that followed, I cowered from the city, hesitating to park on the street, carefully investigating areas before venturing over, and leaving early from nighttime gatherings. This was despite the fact that many of my colleagues were die-hard Baltimoreans, champions of a new and revitalized, more integrated city.

Then I met my future husband on a grimy and gravelly corner of East Madison and North Broadway. After that, the doors of Baltimore opened for me. Our first date was at Camden Yards, a gorgeous venue for baseball (even if you don’t like baseball). In the next few weeks, I remember walking down Federal Hill in the misty twilight to watch David Byrne’s True Stories at the American Visionary Art Museum, enjoying French-inspired cuisine at Marie Louis Bistro, drinks at The Horse You Came In On, the last place Edgar Allen Poe was seen, and walking around Mt. Vernon Square.

Mt Vernon Square was a center of activity, hosting First Thursday outdoor concerts on the green during the summer and an annual book festival. If you went further up Charles Street, you couldn’t have missed Artscape, Baltimore’s huge, outdoor street mulit-day outdoor arts festival in July that goes all the way up to Penn Station. Charles Theatre was the place to be for independent and foreign films. Baltimore has speakeasy’s like Owl Bar that actually existed in the Prohibition Era, not ones that have been made up to look so, and craft beers in the basement of Brewer’s Art.

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Baltimore also introduced me to that great phenomenon of the outdoor farmers’ market. I have never seen anything like the weekly farmers’ market under I-83, where vegetable, meat, doughnut, and crepe stalls unfolded beneath the concrete and seemed to go on forever.

Over the next three years, Baltimore grew on me (like a fungus, as my friend who also moved there from Atlanta would say). I saw a city that was laid-back, artistic, free, expressive, literary, unique, and above all, non-conformist. Most unexpectedly, here was a city after my own heart. Baltimore stitched itself into my soul the same way London did. I felt truly at home.

In other cities, (especially its’ sister), many fun events become over-sized productions, magnetizing hordes of locals and tourists. Cool new restaurants and venues become the place for Hill staffers and political celebrities (you couldn’t pay me to identify them) to see and be seen. These places can be outrageously expensive and unnecessarily chichi. So many times, I feel like DC morphs into a parody of itself.

So it is I found the cable media coverage both disconcerting and sensationalistic. Why do I continue to expect anything more from CNN? Local news at least opted to focus also on community activities and engagement, providing a more accurate picture of location and safety for people traveling, working, and living in the city.

I don’t want to underplay the safety. Crime of all facets is very real. We came home from New York City one Sunday to find our car window broken into, my friend and her husband were once held by a Crips gang member (which prompted them to move out of the city), and a rape took place down the street from us in broad daylight. Even the nice areas were often not so nice. You do live with a certain insecurity, which could be too much to bear.

The recent events have raised important questions regarding inequality, poverty, race, and gentrification. The hardest-hit Baltimore neighborhoods are urban desert landscapes that lack grocery stores, pharmacies, safe housing, and public transportation. Hopkins itself is berated for both not doing more to revitalize East Baltimore, and at the same time, for building that forces people out.

My husband loved Baltimore a great deal more than I did. Even now, if only there were a faster and easier train connecting Baltimore and DC (though that in itself would create a whole other set of issues), we would consider moving back there. For me, it was the place where an exciting new stage of my life began and for that Baltimore will always be in my heart.

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One thought on “The Charm of the City

  1. The only visual and cultural associations I can make with Baltimore are:
    The Ravens and John Waters, the filmmaker. Major news networks’ depictions of the chaos that pulsated through this city certainly hit on the essence of those two entities. I’m glad you got to see and know its more luminescent sides.

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