Monday, September 27, 2010

Hello, Baltimore

I used to live in Baltimore. Heck, I used to live in a lot of places but those are other stories. Three times over the course of my life have I called this city and surrounding area "home." As a toddler in the late 60s I watched my older sister delight in frogging the stream that ran through our backyard. During high school I went through platform shoes, afros and silk shirts in the late 70s and early 80s. Finally, as a full grown adult in the aftermath of a major national crisis, I struggled to survive and redefine myself as a professional and human being in the early 2000s. Good or bad, Baltimore, affectionately off-kilter "Balmer," has always been there.

Founded in 1729 by Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore of the Irish House of Lords, for three months from 1776 to 1777 it was the capital of the United States! Most Americans will recall that the Star Spangled Banner were written here by Francis Scott Key after witnessing the failed British attack on Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. The city has seen a few facelifts since then, including the Great Fire of 1906 and some notable riots spanning 1861 during the Civil War to 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Though we lived just south of the city on Ft. Meade at the time my mother would not let her children out of the house for a few days that week. In almost lock step with blood and blight, however, there always seems to have been one savior after another coming over the horizon to reinvent the city, repaint the landscape and, most especially, revitalize the Inner Harbor.

Before moving to Chicago Oprah Winfrey anchored the evening news on WJZ-TV but the city's art scene has always been way left of center. Fells Point has long been a neighborhood of activism going back to Frederick Douglass. Tallulah Bankhead held court at select watering holes in town while Jada Pinkett-Smith ("The Nutty Professor"), John Waters ("Hairspray") and Barry Levinson ("Diner" and "Rainman") hail from the city. Hollywood got in to the act once via "Hot L Baltimore," a sitcom around a flophouse hotel starring James Cromwell, Conchata Ferrell, Richard Masur and Charlotte Rae.

Former Mayor William Donald Shaeffer is revered still as the contemporary equivalent of Lord Baltimore himself over 20 years after his last year in office.
Among too many achievements to list here, he presided over the creation of Harbor Place, which included the innovative National Aquarium and the new Ballpark at Camden Yards for the woebegone yet beloved Orioles. Most notably for the people of the city, he and City Commissioner Robert Embry offered what I call "The Dollar Deal" where anybody could buy any abandoned row house in select parts of the city for one dollar. The stipulation was to personally invest a minimum of $100,000 in renovations as a way to jumpstart the decayed inner city.

It reversed the population decline, beautified the city and gave a much needed boost to personal equity and city coffers in one fell swoop. Key note here: not a single city backed loan defaulted!

I am not from Baltimore but it is the closest thing to a family home that I have. Thanks to "The Wire" it doesn't always look its best and is indeed facing major challenges today but it is essentially the same city most people would recognize and that I remember from years ago. It is at once a little touchy in the underdog kind of way when mentioned in the same conversation as nearby Washington D.C. or Philadelphia; a little quirky in its love of Old Bay Seasoning on everything from its world famous blue crabs to ice cream and is justifiably proud of its place in American national and sports history - Pimlico hosts the Preakness the first Monday of every May, a part of the Triple Crown.

A lot of heavy industry is gone but the Bromo Tower, those famous marble steps and the people are still there, dancing to their own rhythm on the west side of the Chesapeake. Go for crabs, ballgames, fresh produce at one of six neighborhood markets or any of over 100 bars and pubs in Fells Point but don't expect to see too many beehive hair-dos!

Gotta go!

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