The title is of course how one pronounces "Baltimore, Maryland" if one is actually from Baltimore. This is a city that I had never spent any time in, other than a day trip with my friend Paree, who lives in D.C. and who took me up one day to see the waterfront. Paree has a keen interest in architecture and urban design, which makes him a delight to wander around cities in; a day trip to Detroit when we both lived in Michigan is one my extremely fond memories because 1) Detroit is fascinating, architecturally speaking, and 2) Paree is a lot of fun.
We wandered around the waterfront, where I spent a lot of my time on this trip in a conference hotel, giving a presentation with my colleague Kathleen on a deliberative democracy project we organized at our school. The conference was the annual meeting of the American Democracy Project, a project of the AMerican Association of State Schools and Colleges (AASCU). Got all that? I never have quite understood the relationship of all the organizations, and it didn't matter. What mattered was a presentation in a new city--a weekend trip that the university paid for, which is fine by me.
Baltimore may be my new favorite city. I say this every time I go to a new city (see my entries on San Antonio in this blog and on Honolulu in my previous blog), but it's always true. Bawlmer is just a very cool city: big enough but not too big, filled with urban pleasures, and unusually friendly. Henceforth, ten things to like about Bawlmer, Merlind:
1) Traveling with Kathleen. Not a Baltimore thing, exactly, but traveling with Kathleen made the Newark airport bearable, where we had an extremely long and tedious layover. Kathleen's usual strategy, when confronted with a flight delay, is to locate a place that sells wine by the glass. This strikes me as an admirable strategy. Newark is not a fun airport. Few of them are, for that matter, but Newark was especially vile. But after some wine, my attitude is, oh well. More Shiraz, please.
2) Baltimore's downtown architecture. I did not stay at the conference hotel, for which I'm grateful. I stayed on the north end of downtown, which meant lots of walking lots of and gawking at the very cool buildings in Baltimore's manageable downtown. Like most East Coast cities, Baltimore hasn't torn every old building down, so the downtown mix is very pleasing, with new skyscrapers cheek to jowl with old Victorian brick commercial buildings. And because Baltimore is old, there are a fair number of colonial and Federal buildings as well. TGhe architectural melange is a bit odd, but itall works. I suspect it's because it's a generally human-scaled architecture; the skyscrapers don't try to stupefy you into admiration of their gigantic-ness. It's a very walkable downtown with vistas down to the harbor everywhere. Plus there's a coffeehouse about every six blocks or so, something I personally require.
3) Inner Harbor. Inner Harbor is Baltimore's wildy successful adaptation of its working waterfront to urban pleasures, and I have mixed feelings abou it. It's massively touristy, and while it has brought many people into the inner city, most of them don't seem to be Baltimoreans. The excessive number of convention hotels makes that clear. And most of it is standard tourist stuff: Starbucks, Famous Footwear, a Nike store, fast food outlets, a "festival marketplace," the usual. I could've stayed home if I wanted a shopping mall. Most depressing to me was the Power Plant, an old power plant that's been tarted up with a Hard Rock Cafe, a Barnes and Noble, a Gold's Gym, all with these corporate logos bolted to the side of the building. In all fairness, this is not a bad reuse of a derelict power plant, as reuse goes, but I would have preferred that it remain a power plant. Americans don't seem to like or want to look at basic city infrastructure unless, of course, they can shop at it.
That said, Inner Harbor is most walkable. It's especially nice to stroll along the docks. And some tourist attractions are well worth having. I didn't have time to visit the National Aquarium, for example, But I'm told that it's spectacular.
4) Little Italy. Little Italy is adjacent to the Inner Harbor, and it's the real deal: an ethnic neighborhood that caters to its inhabitants more than to the tourist trade. We got a dinner recommendation from a group of elderly Italians playing bocce in a public park, and it turned out terrific. "Tell Luigi that Mario sent you," bocce player Mario told us, and I recommend Luigi's restaurant, Caesar's Den, highly. Have the linguini with smoked salmon in cream sauce.
Little Italy was also hosting a street fair for the local Catholic Church, St. Leo's, that weekend, and it took me back to the annual fair at my own St. Leo's in Flint, Michigan. There were raffles and bingo games and street food and St. Christopher medals and noisy locals enjoying the pleasures of their own neighborhood. Lots ofbeer, which is the mark of any truly successful Catholic pariochial event. The urban layout here is really nice: tight little homes with stoops with, often, businesses below on the street level and homes above them. Even the new developments respect the street fabric and imitate it closely.
5) Great pubs. Baltimore seems to be a really good drinking town. I'm not surprised by this because it was a major port, which immediately means good riffraff. So there are bars and pubs galore. In particular, I recommend Lucy's, an Irish pub housed in a former bank. It sounds odd, but it works; the formality of the bank architecture and interior plays nicely off the "this is your public living room" ethos that makes any bar successful. I stumbled on Lucy's, looking for a place to have dinner, and am very grateful that I did. Have the shepherd's pie and for dessert, splurge on the custard creme.
6) Walkability. I've mentoined this twice already, so it's obviously important to me. Baltimore is generally flat and its downtown is compact, so it's a city in which one can walk to things. And people do walk; the streets were filled with folks at all hours. I also noticed that there seems to be lots of neighborhood pride. That is, people identified with the neighborhoods they were living in, and they made the city manageable by defining their everyday lives around them. I'm willing to bet that there are many, many Baltimoreans who are able to meet all of their daily needs by walking within a ten-block radius of their home. This is as it should be. I would love to live like this, and I would happily sell my car if I could.
7) The Walters Art Gallery. Hands down, my new favorite museum. It's free, which is highly unusual, because (I assume) it's very well endowed. It's also relatively small, as suggested by its name: its benefactors saw it as a gallery, not a museum. And its collection is extremely choice; the Walter family, a father and son, had lots of money and excellent taste. Wonderful as it is, the Walters is not overwhelming in the way that many art museums are. It feels as if you've stumbled into someone's eccentric house. One gallery, in fact, is laid out much like someone's private living quarters. There are no velvet ropes, and all the artwork is hung on the walls sort of haphazardly, as if the owner of the house just put them there because he liked to look at them. The Walters is not that big, so it's manageable, but big enough to have a relatively deep and choice collection. You can certainly get lost in the galleries--the museum's layout sort of eluded me--but if you do, you just keep stumbling onto fabulous things that make being disoriented worth it. I couldn't figure out how to take the Faberge egg home with me, but I so wanted to. The Walters' medieval and early Renaissance collection is outstanding, which made me very happy. I left, sated with Madonnas and Children.
8) Hon Fest. You have to love a city that could come up with this street festival, and I am very upset that I couldn't attend it. If you've seen the movie Hairspray, you know what a "hon" is: a woman in leopard-print capris, cat's-eye glasses, and big, teased hair. She takes her name from her catchphrase, "How y'all doin', hon?" Bawlmer celebrates this (apparently) city icon with a festival that brings all of her hons together, dressed in full hon regalia. The official hons are required to march in the mayor's Christmas parade. Dontcha just love that, hon?
Okay, so I only have eight things to like about Bawlmer. I'd have more if I hadn't have had to spend most of my weekend in a conference hotel. This does not lessen my affection for the city. I would like to go back and round out my list. It would be easy to do.