Charm City

I’m going to leave New York for a while, and move on to Baltimore, which is where I was for most of last week. Baltimore, I discovered, has the dubious moniker of “Charm City.” Apparently the mayor of Baltimore asked some advertisers to come up with a marketing slogan to help the city improve its image (this was back in the mid-1970s when Baltimore’s image badly needed improving) and that’s what they came up with. Somehow, it stuck.

My introduction to Baltimore wasn’t quite so charming. As I was thinking about what to write for this post, I realized it’s been a while since I’ve experienced a first impression of a city. Most of my travels lately have been to cities or countries I’ve been to before, some of them multiple times. Impressions then are as much about memory (of previous visits) as they are about new experiences.

There is nothing, however, like the first impression. Impressions can and do change the longer you spend in a place, or the more times you return. But you can never again have a first look at a city once you’ve been there.

In short: I’m no longer a Baltimore virgin.

My first glimpse of Baltimore on the bus from New York was of streets after streets of “the vacants” — the boarded-up row houses you see on the TV show The Wire. It’s one thing to see images like that on a TV show; it’s a kick in the gut to see them in real life, and to see real people (as opposed to actors) sitting on the stoops of those boarded-up houses as you drive by. I don’t know that I’ve seen similar neighbourhoods anywhere in Canada. Maybe they exist, and I’m just ignorant about the realities of poverty in Canada. But I don’t think so. Not that many houses and not that many streets.

Baltimore is south of the Mason-Dixon line. (Although Maryland was part of the Union during the Civil War, it contributed troops to both the Union and the Confederate armies.) So … that puts Baltimore pretty far south. The climate is hot, humid, and pretty uncomfortable in August. (And that was after it had cooled down from earlier in the summer, my sister informed me.)

The only reason I was in Baltimore was to visit my sister, and the only reason she lives in Baltimore is to study at Johns Hopkins University. She lives near the university, which is slightly north of downtown Baltimore. Navigating Baltimore’s public transit system once you’re out of range of the Charm City Circulator, the bus that travels around the downtown core and into select neighbourhoods (Fast! Friendly! FREE!), can be frustrating. It strikes me that life in Middle America if you’re below a certain income level can be really, really difficult.

Sports draw a lot of tourists to Baltimore, I’m told. Boston fans come down for the Orioles–Red Sox games, and the Preakness Stakes is run every May at Pimlico. The Inner Harbor has a wide variety of activities and restaurants to suit a wide variety of tastes, and there are some interesting neighbourhoods outside of the downtown core, such as hipsterish Hampden, and historic Fells Point along the waterfront. The local microbrew (Dogfish Head) is very hoppy, the local specialty (crab cakes) is very tasty, and Bawlmorians put Old Bay Seasoning on everything.

I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Baltimore, so my first impressions of the city might end up being my only impressions. But it was good to see where my sister has been hanging out these last few years, and it was good to see a part of the United States that was new to me.

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