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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Liking Baltimore

I tried really hard to like Baltimore when I first arrived here in the fall of 2005. It only sort of worked through the first fall and winter -- this town doesn't thrive on winter like Minneapolis does;* it's more something to be endured.

It wasn't until last spring I finally started actually liking Baltimore, instead of just making myself not dislike it. The city has a very unique feel to it, and in many ways it is the antidote to the homogenization of culture and landscape that I find so depressing. If we were to look at diversity of culture and urban landscape the same way we look at the diversity in the natural environment, Baltimore would be the equivalent of an isolated, teeming cloud forest with hundreds of different microclimates, all containing exotic species that can't be found anywhere else. The city as a whole has all sorts of things I've never seen anyplace else; as Chris said last weekend, (paraphrasing here) "What other city has packs of kids on dirtbikes roaming the streets in the summer doing continuous wheelies?...It's like every boy in Baltimore knows how to do an indefinite wheelie...it's an essential skill." It's true -- I've seen them practicing. A couple weeks ago I stopped at a red light in my car and and two boys on bicycles waiting on the cross street spent the whole green light doing wheelies in the intersection in front of the waiting cars.

Along with these city-wide quirks, there are also numerous individual neighborhoods with their own look and (no exaggeration) their own culture. Hampden, just to my west, started as a mill town, and retains a gritty working-class feel; and its VFW hall, Eagles Club, and "Red Men's Lodge" appear to be hubs of activity. Waverly, just to my east, feels like a lazy little Southern town, very leafy and quiet, with a lot of people just sitting on the front porch.

Despite coming to love its genuine character, I still get down on Baltimore sometimes. People yell/honk at me all the time when I'm riding my bike. People are afraid to walk places at night. The public transit is terrible. And the constant reminders of the city's scars from losing a third of its population and the persistent racial divide are sort of a heavy psychic load. So, more than with Minneapolis, my view of the city is volatile -- many days I love Baltimore, but some days I just wish I were somewhere else that's a bit easier to like. There often seems to be a bitterness hanging over people here, which might come in part from the city being kicked around so much. The bumper sticker I've seen around town, "This City Needs A Hug," sums it up nicely.

But man, when that cloud lifts -- though I'm surely projecting my moods onto the personality of the city to some extent here -- Baltimore is a really great place. Today that was quite true, and I think the sudden gorgeous, warm weather after a long stretch of gloomy and cold semi-spring helped a lot. (It probably also helped that Aunt Helena and Kirsti and Leila came up to visit today and I was in a tour guide mindset.) As I took a long bike ride to Dundalk late this afternoon, everybody was out in the various neighborhoods sitting on stoops, talking, and generally relaxing. When I passed by the track and football field alongside Monument Street in East Baltimore, there was inexplicably a BMW convertible slowly driving around the track, blaring music, and with 6 or 7 women elaborately dolled up in Orioles gear sitting on top waving at no one in particular. I spent 50 cents on an awesome glazed doughnut at this decades-old bakery (run by two adorable old ladies) that I ran across near Patterson Park last spring. And Dundalk, where I'd never been before, almost seemed frozen in time at some point in the 1970s.

Anyway, I'll soon be moving to DC, but it's been really cool to get to know Baltimore, and I'm glad that I'll be leaving it on good terms, and not just as some place that I happened to live for a couple years for grad school. And I won't be too far away, and will still know people here, so I'm sure I'll be back to visit...

*Okay, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but work with me here.


Erin said...

BELIEVE in a greener Baltimore...

Those stickers are us here at UVM, working on the urban long term ecological research project!!!!

teague said...

Cool -- you really should tell all of us more about your work Erin. Perhaps through a topical blog? Anyway, I've got one of those stickers sitting in my room, been meaning to put it on my car for months. I'm moving soon, but maybe I could put it over one of the John Kerry stickers that's still on my car.

BTW, did I mention I have a class this semester with a visiting professor from your department, Curt Ventriss?

Erin said...

Neat!! Curt advises my roommate and two of my best grad-student-friends! What's the class?

I think you should definitely go for the sticker. Support UVM while at the same time getting rid of antiquated political leanings!!

Also, how much demand do you think there really is for a "topical blog"? Do any of the Carletonites really care about my environmental rantings? Hmm.

teague said...

The class I just finished with Curt is Citizen Participation in Public Policy -- it was really good.

I do think there's demand for a topical blog. Some people you know will read it to start off with, because it's cool to see someone you know talk about what they're interested in (and I don't think I'm the only one who thinks your field is particularly interesting/relevant). And then, beyond people you know, if you keep up the blog for a while, you could develop a small but loyal readership of people who are in your field and interested outsiders. There are blogs with that kind of audience in a lot of areas these days. While you're in grad school is a good time to start it, because you're engaged with the academic side of things, and the people you're working with might become readers of your blog.

Further, I think writing a blog is an excellent way to develop and clarify your own thinking. Writing a little snippet about something a couple times a week forces you to think clearly about it (and how it relates to other things you've talked about) to explain it to others, and I know that whenever I'm forced to do that, it makes my own thinking more sophisticated in the process.