Infested With Culture
I’m originally from Maryland. My first state. My first place. My first people. And I love it.
It’s got the best seafood in the country outside of Louisiana, and sometimes even better. (The debate over steamed versus boiled crabs can be another topic for another day, but I stand by it.)
And there’s a city there called Baltimore. It’s not Maryland’s capital, but its biggest city. That rat-infested, vermin-infested, generally-infested place of disgrace, disregard and despair.
According to some.
According to one.
A place where no human being would want to live. So it is said. But so it is wrong.
I remember the Baltimore from when I was a kid. I hated it. Mostly because that’s where the Orioles were from and I was a Washington Senators fan (Google that one, kids) and the O’s (and the Yankees and the Red Sox) always won the American League East title while the Senators and the Cleveland Indians battled it out for the cellar every season.
We used to drive through Baltimore, my family, during summer vacations, on our way to the beach or the Chesapeake Bay or to go fishing on some river in some outpost down in tobacco country, and it was the late ’60s and there were still things like smokestacks and, well….smokestacks. Lots of smokestacks.
Remember those? We were warming the globe before you knew the glaciers were melting.
I remember black fumes spewing up and out over the Interstate – I-95 – and the dirty harbor and the Carling Black Label brewery, Baltimore’s finest beer at the time, and how bleak it all looked, like so many now-great and Renaissance cities did back then. Dark, gray, empty, scary, soulless. Hopeless.
But – murder rates, corruption and “The Wire” aside – Baltimore has made a great comeback, in the mode of so many classic American cities – Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Little Rock, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Milwaukee, Richmond, Buffalo, Detroit, to name a few.
And, yeah, Cleveland.
Formerly industrial, manufacturing towns beat down and passed by in the latter part of the 20th century, they revived themselves by the turn of the 21st – first by squatters and urban voyagers – and then by settlers and culture vultures, art colonies, culinary daredevils, experimental theater troupes, warehouse districts, tech start-ups, entrepreneurial incubators, cutting edge festivals and, yes – horror of horrors – gentrification. (Often an obtuse and pejorative term for urban investment. See: Bywater.)
Whatever. Like New Orleans, these cities have come back. Cities are cool again. You can buy fresh fruit and flowers on the sidewalks. Theaters show old black and white movies. People over 12 ride bicycles. Pocket parks are a thing. Old men play chess on porches. There are more murals than billboards. Neighborhoods have their own websites. Yes, it’s a fresh paint Yuppie nightmare. But it’s better than a broken window vacancy.
Baltimore was a smokestack town whose greatest asset back in the day was Johnny Unitas (Google that one, kids) that later cleaned and revived its waterfront, built a world-class aquarium, created a vibrant music and dining scene, invested in stadiums and historic districts, offered affordable housing to the young – the beautiful, the tragically hip and the poor – and now stands, with many of the aforementioned industrial American cities as a landmark, not of shame, but of pride.
Sure as hell, there are bad parts. There always are and there probably always will be. In Baltimore and every city. It’s rough at times and in places, and until we create Utopia, there’s no escaping that. Guns, drugs, corruption, guys standing on the corner with hand-scrawled cardboard signs that say “veteran” or “anything helps” or “god bless,” because they want you to know they’re right with Jesus.
And, if I were to be contrary here, I would point out that hundreds of the vermin-infested rental properties in Baltimore are owned by Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner – properties which have been cited time and time again for municipal code violations and rodent infestation – but that would seem too easy, too polemic, too politically opportunistic, such low hanging fruit, a cheap shot.
So I won’t mention it.
Trump questions why anyone would want to live in Baltimore. Funny, he only lives a half-hour away. He ought to check it out.
I’d live there in a minute. Baltimore is one of America’s great old classic cities filled with incomprehensible accents and indecipherable ethnicities and corner groceries and neon taverns and food trucks and bowling alleys and farmers markets and playgrounds and gushing fire hydrants and church bells and, where – much like New Orleans – people sit on their front stoops instead of their back yards, and where neighbors and strangers and passersby alike nod to each other on the sidewalk and say “A’aight,” on hot summer nights, and where locals wear orange and white and black in the summer (Orioles) and purple and blue and black in the fall (Ravens) and cheer their teams and their city and sometimes they win and sometimes they don’t but the people cheer all the same. Cheer. Their. City.
If Baltimore sounds a lot like New Orleans, that’s because it is. It’s old. It’s got character and charm. It’s got history and legacy. It got beat down. It got up again. It’s proud.
Babe Ruth, Alger Hiss, Edgar Allen Poe, John Waters, Ta-Nahisi Coates, Tom Clancy, Mama Cass, Billie Holiday, Thurgood Marshall, Upton Sinclair, Emily Post, David Hasselhoff and Frank Zappa are from Baltimore.
Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner in Baltimore Harbor.
You want America? That’s freaking America.