Since I moved away almost five years ago, Baltimore has tugged at my heart. I can go months without thinking of the city, but when something brings it to mind, I find myself longing for this lost love. As a short time adopted resident of Baltimore, I was proud to tell people I called Charm city home and to champion the place, disputing claims that Baltimore is merely a crime-ridden, dirty, second rate city.
I find myself wondering about and wanting the ability to articulate Baltimore’s appeal. Certainly, there is a segment of Baltimore’s population who are wholly discontented with the place. They see it as a poor substitute for New York, too gritty, too provincial, or too small to be considered cosmopolitan. Baltimore has a lot of faults to be sure: segregation, a poor public school system and poor conditions for bike transportation, to name a few. I am not advocating for complacency in these unfortunate qualities, but offering a reminder that we all want for others to see past our faults. We revel in the chance to recognize beauty in that which is not “beautiful” by societal standards. So, why not offer Baltimore that benefit for she has great beauty despite her faults.
As a watercolor painter I find the images of Baltimore completely captivating. In contrasting Charm City with it nearest counterpart Washington D.C., I often used the words gritty and industrial. Those words unfairly flatten the depth of the city’s character. The visibility and aesthetic pleasure of the Baltimore’s history, in the urban landscape, make for extraordinary compositions. I have quite contentedly painted the Domino Sugar Factory and the Mr. Boh signs and wondered at the nostalgia I felt for these neon advertisements. They are simultaneously iconic reminders of Baltimore’s historic and contemporary industry, beautiful, wholly associated with the place, and part of Baltimore’s identity in the present, which feels personal.
Beyond the grand scenes I associate with Baltimore there are many hidden corners that speak of the city’s admirable qualities. The houses on Buena Vista for several blocks north of 36th street are an example of the absolutely impossible to replicable essence of Baltimore. The houses have the charm of quaint cottages in a small town on the East Coast. I can imagine them nestled in trees just steps from a path down to the beach. The lure of these places doesn’t come from Crate and Barrel teak lounge chairs on the generous front porches. These houses still appear to be working hard for the working class. I marvel at the nobility of these houses and the wonderful 2-story brick rowhouses of 37th west of Buena Vista. They march along the street in service of people who have a Baltimore lineage of several generations and a long memory of the neighborhood. The city’s vernacular housing with its somewhat squat proportions and formstone facades is somewhat humble, whimsy tempered by grit.
Baltimore is a city that offers unbelievably quaint enclaves in places like Mt. Washington, cultural attractions combined with gay pride in Mt. Vernon, diversity in neighborhoods like Pigtown, colorful, dense housing stock in Charles Village, lush university campuses, an extraordinary collection of the works of Matisse, and many neighborhoods which offer the opportunity to for transformation to healthy, community-orientated places, investment in the collective good. In this, I see the unexpected beauty of a place that doesn’t always live up to the glamour of flashier cities, but doesn’t disappoint those who seek the hidden potential of the place.
Nelson Algren, said that loving Chicago, my present home, was "Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real." I would say of Baltimore that it is like falling in love unexpectedly, you may well find a more perfect lover. But never have you been so charmed.
Do you know the charms of Baltimore?