On Baltimore

On Baltimore

I love Baltimore. That statement usually draws out a few laughs. But I do. I can’t help it.

It doesn’t have the culture or food of New York, the cleanliness of Portland, the youth of San Francisco, the history of Boston or Philadelphia, the beauty of Chicago, the fun of Miami, or the glamor of Los Angeles. In fact, aside from its crab cakes, Baltimore probably doesn’t top anyone’s objective list for the best at anything. And yet, Baltimore is the best.

Dan Rodricks explained why in this moving obituary to his barber that appeared recently in the Baltimore Sun:

One thing about life in Baltimore: If you move here and make friends and come to know your neighbors, if you become engaged in the civic culture, if you accept the city’s peculiarities, if you take time to discover what’s good about the place, pretty soon — how soon depends on how hard you work at it — you start to feel like a native.

You become an Orioles fan and a Ravens fan, even a Blast fan. You soon find yourself rooting not only for those teams but for the whole city.

Baltimore can break your heart; a person’s commitment to living here gets tested regularly. But you stick with it because you can’t help it. It’s a condition. Something about Baltimore gets into your bones, and you develop civic pride and hold out modest hope — because the alternative frame of mind would be unbearable — that the city will rise to a better place within your lifetime.

As time goes by, an outsider acquires knowledge, often more than the natives have, of amenities — an excellent bagel shop, a reliable place for crabs, a barroom that always welcomes you, a well-stocked liquor store that never alters its shelf configurations.

In high school, I spent what added up to a month each summer in Baltimore going to Orioles games, working, and taking in the city. Few feelings elicit as much nostalgia as a walk around the outside of Camden Yards on a warm Baltimore night, close enough that you can hear the fans cheer again for what is inevitably another hopeful but not-quite-good-enough season. Less enchanting memories, like walking upon the aftermath of a shooting, or being offered drugs you didn’t even know existed on every street corner, or suffering multiple car break-ins, also persist.

But that’s part of what gives the “Charm City” it’s charm. It’s the legendary beer vendor at the game, the bartender at Max’s Taphouse, the professor at John’s Hopkins, the guy selling bootleg t-shirts in the Inner Harbor, or the short order cook at Chaps Pit Beef, all sharing in these same experiences in that beautiful, fucked up place — as Dan Rodricks says — holding out hope that the city will rise to a better place in their lifetimes.

I’ll take that authentic, collective spirit over the well-manicured streets of Silicon Valley any day.