Second, I think it is an excellent thing to visit a city you’ve never visited before, nor even thought much of visiting. To see neighborhoods ranging from working class to clearly some other class, including the places where Babe Ruth was born and Edgar Allen Poe died. Old neighborhoods, my favorite. To have your host, when asking what you might like for dinner, offer cuisines like Afghan or Ethiopian along with the more typical Italian or French. And to be served lunch by a waitress who calls you “Hon.” Toward the end of our trip we’d walked so many miles I wanted to go around town in my bedroom slippers; I don’t think anyone would have minded a bit. Baltimore is like that.
We are just back from a visit with Floyd’s Uncle Dan, who has been an enthusiastic resident of Baltimore for nearly fifty years. It was my first time in a real 19th-century row house, and for weeks now I’ll be falling asleep to images of what I would do with one. A friend of Dan’s kindly had us over for a spectacular lunch, and her house is a series of artfully decorated rooms on a number of levels. Perhaps because of the skylights and an abundance of wood, all I could think of was a home made out of tree houses. Yes, please.
Back in the 1970’s Dan and the people who would become his friends and neighbors in the Pigtown area of Baltimore “won” their homes in an extensive lottery of row houses that had been slated for the wrecking ball. When a planned superhighway failed to materialize, entire blocks of row houses were raffled off for a dollar apiece. Where once pigs were herded through the narrow streets to the harbor and off to market, now young professionals were reclaiming long-neglected homes and becoming lifelong friends.
It must have been an exciting time, if rather stressful. Whether the new owners actually felt like winners depended entirely on the amount of endurance and rehab money they possessed. I mean these places were complete shambles: holes in roofs, in floors, in pipes, in skylights, in walls. Dan’s house came with no front steps and a hole in the upstairs floor you could drop your laundry through – while it was still in the laundry basket. Every one of these homes was a complete gut job.
Anyway, having now been in two of them, and having seen what can be accomplished, I am thoroughly impressed. Some of the old features, like transom windows, evoke steamy summers and the challenge of drawing even the slightest breeze through homes that have no cross-ventilation. And all those bricks! Sure enough, they were manufactured by the million in old Baltimore.
All over town I saw signs of a port city struggling to rebrand itself as yet another cycle of commerce had drawn to a close and new sources of finance and vitality must be sought. It is a city with more than its share of poverty and crime, an image perhaps not helped much by the debut episodes of “Serial.” Having no desire to take a tour of the sites named in that riveting crime series, I preferred to focus on more salubrious aspects of the area; but even the new downtown struggles to hang onto retail shops and residential occupants. I wish them well.
The cityscape along the Inner Harbor reminded me of San Diego in the years when I knew it, between 1983 and 2000, with high-rise hotels, condos, “mixed use” developments, shops, restaurants, and a huge aquarium and science museum complex springing up. This portion of Baltimore burned to the ground in 1904* and remained a scruffy warehouse district through the mid-90s. Now there is a wide promenade stretching from one end of the Inner Harbor to the other, and although the March wind was chilly and ferocious, I could easily imagine hundreds of people jogging, biking, and pushing baby strollers in milder weather.
Such ventures in urban renewal require an infusion of creativity, and that is a quality Baltimore seems to have in abundance. (I saw a grocery truck with a sign painted on the driver’s door: “Driver Does Not Carry Cash. Only Cashews.”) Having given two full days over to the Smithsonian, we never made it to any of the city’s more formal art museums on this trip, but street and folk art were everywhere.
I have it in my mind that when a city falls on hard times and property must practically be given away, artists are among the people who can afford to move in (think Detroit). So although poverty has predictable and devastating effects, where rents are low, art has the chance to thrive. I’ve seen Austin push its artists from front and center, out the east side, and finally into distant, more affordable towns. It is a sad thing to see.
At the American Visionary Art Museum, on the other hand, artists with no formal training or major claim to fame exhibit astonishing works. The building itself is visionary, covered in mosaic, teeming with what I would characterize as modern folk art that ranges from pointillism on paper plates to an enormous piece, “Black Icarus,” featuring that mythical figure covered in tile, mirrors, and stained glass, spiraling down the center stairwell toward a mosaic sea.
In a separate building we found several recent entries in a popular local event where enormous and fanciful person-powered vehicles parade through town, with some ending up spectacularly pedaled straight into the harbor. Art for art’s sake, indeed.
This eight-foot mosaic egg was designed with Hubble images in mind. We’d just spent two days at various Smithsonian museums including Air and Space; and as we went through the Visionary Museum I couldn’t help but feel the sharp contrast between what I was seeing and what I had seen the day before in the reverend rooms of our National Gallery.
Not everyone would agree, I am sure, but I believe art has a great deal of space for many different strains of imagination and creativity. (At the same time, I don’t belong to the school of thought that allows every creative effort to be called “art.” I feel there is a difference, and if I were to make a six-foot mosaic egg and show it to you, I feel sure you would see the difference too.)
The biographical notes posted for the Visionary artists portrayed lives spent outside the societal structures and expectations many of us regard as “normal.” It nearly made me want to sell everything and take up residence in a wood cabin with no electricity or running water. Almost. Many artists expressed a strong sense of their spiritual and cultural roots; being the nosey type I always appreciate some backstory. One exhibit, titled “OCD,” nearly sent my brain into overdrive. Very powerful, and not completely pleasantly so.
Taking photos is not allowed inside the museum, which is fine; but I was disappointed not to find post cards or posters of any of the exhibits. I would have loved a few visual souvenirs. You will just have to travel to Charm City to see for yourself.
It was on the day of that visit that I learned of an art form I had never known about before: the art of screen painting. Not the kind of screen Dan, as a lover of all things Asian, has in his dining room; no, this is the Baltimore tradition of painting window screens so that residents could see out but passers-by could not see in. Invented rather serendipitously by a grocer who painted pictures of produce on his store’s screen door, the trend took hold. Row houses sit right on the sidewalk, so privacy could be hard to obtain in the months when windows and curtains were best left open to whatever fresh air might be available.
The grocer who started the trend offered his services to customers, and taught many people, including his sons, the art of screen painting. Understandably, residents of the city’s row houses tended to dream of solitary cottages in the countryside, and this led to a very popular theme among the painted screens; but there was great variety, limited only by the artists’ imaginations. Don’t you know I want a painted screen door now? (http://paintedscreens.org/)
When we arrived in Baltimore, it was raining – not ideal for sight-seeing, but neither was it enough to stop us from going out to lunch and giving me an opportunity to immerse myself in my favorite earthly feature: water. Lots and lots of water. A few boats. A pair of ducks paddling alongside the dock. The unmistakable cries of gulls.
You’ll have to forgive me for only being able to identify this river as maybe the Patapsco, and of course I can’t recall the name of the bridge; but I know Dan will help me with the details when he reads this post. I shall name names as soon as I am able.
We toured a number of neighborhoods, finding miniature urban oases everywhere, some still bearing the last remnants of what must have been a tediously snowy winter. Such scenes take me back to my New England childhood and that mud season made bearable by the very prospect of leaf buds and random sprinklings of crocuses. Forty degrees at long last! You can leave your jacket home!
In one small park, Dan told us, the city plants thousands of tulip bulbs each year. For a few weeks in spring, the landscape explodes with multi-colored azaleas, flowering trees, and all those tulips. When the blooming is done, city residents are invited to help themselves to tulip bulbs – the sort of tradition even an Unruly Gardener could wholeheartedly endorse. (This reminds me, a propos of nothing, that I read only this morning that France has passed legislation requiring all new buildings, including homes, to have either solar panels or plants covering their roofs. Just wait until I am Queen of the Universe. Just wait.)
There are many monuments in Baltimore, of course. We saw the local Washington Monument as well as the D.C. version; toured the oldest naval sailing ship still afloat; walked up Federal Hill where once frightened citizens huddled to watch a decisive battle take place on a long night in the harbor, and went out to Fort McHenry where Dan likes to take his two-mile walks.
[Insert Rant Warning here.]
I am not particularly enamored of monuments to warfare. The backstory is always horror and suffering, and although I appreciate our many freedoms as much as anyone, I am never quite convinced that war is a successful model for accomplishing anything. However, Fort McHenry is different because it encompasses poetry, an art about which I feel quite strongly. There is that one poem about which I have exceedingly sharp opinions even for me: I believe that anyone who inserts a grace note into “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be permanently banned from public performances of any kind. It is not a torch song, no matter how much you love your country.
I am sorry to say I don’t think anyone will ever sing the anthem the way I believe it ought to be sung.
You see, I don’t hear “The Star-Spangled Banner” being belted out – even sans grace notes as if the singer(s) wanted to be heard on Europe’s unenlightened shores even without a microphone. What I hear is an exhausted, wounded man whispering hoarsely to a passer-by after a cold, pouring-rain night of fierce fighting, hoping against hope that the outcome of that long siege might be a positive one for the infant nation.
I did enjoy watching the kids grabbing for the flag as it was lowered at the close of a spectacularly windy day. They were excited and shrieking with laughter as the flag – the size of which is chosen for compatibility with local weather patterns on any given day – flapped and fluttered as if to elude easy grasping.
At last over a dozen visitors, young and old, helped fold it into the familiar triangle as the park ranger – whose hat kept flying off – explained the design of the flag and the traditions associated with its raising and lowering. Smiling parents were recording it all on their cell phones.
I think Francis Scott Key would have liked that.
*Corrections: Just in case you cannot view the Comments section, here are the hoped-for corrections and amendments to this post, from Dan:
I enjoyed reading the interesting blob about your visit to Baltimore. I hope that you will have only good memories of Charm City.
I agree with you about the awful renditions of our national anthem; I call them caterwauling!
The bridge over the Patapsco (American Indian name) River is the Hanover Street Bridge. And daffodils, as well as tulips, are planted in the thousands at Sherwood Gardens, and later offered to Baltimoreans who are willing to dig them up.
The 1904 Baltimore fire devastated the center city around what is now the B & O Building, but did not harm the area around the harbor. The Inner Harbor, once home to ships that traveled overnight to Norfolk, as well as to other steam ships and to watermelon boats and banana boats, began a renaissance with the 1980 opening of Harborplace, followed in 1981 with the opening of the National Aquarium.
I should have explained about Station North, an area north of Penn (RR) Station up to MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) which is developing into studios for artists, avant-garde theater groups, quirky restaurants and a multiplex movie house that once housed the Left Bank Jazz Society, and which now shows art films as well as other first-run movies.
I hope that you and Floyd can visit again during warmer months when Baltimore will put on a more colorful face with blooming trees and flowers, and walks will be more agreeable without those blustery winds.