Learning to love Baltimore.
November 8, 2011 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Please help me learn to love Baltimore and find the beauty in it.

A year ago my partner I moved to Baltimore from a beautiful European city of similar population, where we did not own a car, could walk to nearly everything in a vibrant city center, and take public transit everywhere else. The city streets were alive and bustling. I loved walking in the city, and I loved being in close proximity to my work, beautiful parks, and lovely architecture. We like food (and mainly cook at home) and I loved being a few blocks from high-quality butchers, cheese shops, bakers, greengrocers, and markets -- I could simply pop in to a shop on the way home if we needed something. I fell in love with this city.

Then I found a job in Baltimore. We moved to Hampden because I can walk to work, and it is a charming neighborhood. But apart from my job, and the Avenue, there is literally nothing else to walk to, as Hampden is bounded on all sides by boring suburbs, highways, urban decay, and an impassable ravine. It's almost like living in a small town of a few thousand people. I'd love to be able to walk to a decent grocer, but the local Giant is, frankly, repellent -- there seems to be little great food in the city in general. The public transit sucks. We own a car and drive places, but I profoundly hate driving -- we drive so much on the weekends that I feel like I'm living in the suburbs. We've made an effort to explore different corners of Baltimore, and there things we like about it -- Belvedere Square, Lexington Market, Waverley Market, AVAM, Federal Hill Park, Fells Point, harbor promenades. But the city does not move me at all. Pretty much every decent neighborhood in Baltimore has the same problem -- it's a small, isolated pocket amidst crumbling, depopulated ruins. For instance, Mount Vernon is beautiful, but there are no decent grocers, and there is little street life. I don't know any place from which I could go on a four-mile ramble through the city and then take a bus home. I feel trapped and alienated here, and walking through the decrepit, nearly abandoned city blocks every day is driving me to depression. There's beauty in decay, but I often feel like that's the only kind of beauty there is in Baltimore.

Baltimoreans are rightly proud of their affordable housing, the passion of local sports fans, the arts scene, the music scene, and the quirky bars, and those things are great, but they're not what I'm looking for. The problem is that I'm middle-aged, and while I appreciated those things in my twenties, and still do to some extent, they aren't that important to me. A friend recently described Baltimore as "a young person's city", which really rang true to me. I like funky, kitschy, and weird in small doses, but it often seems as if that's all there is here, and what I'm really longing for a place that is just plain beautiful and inviting.

I'm not looking to exactly replicate my old city -- there are many cities that I've lived in or been too that have similar qualities, and I feel like there are many different places that would make me happy. Where is that place in Baltimore? I'm more or less resigned to the fact that in order to live someplace I love I'll have to commute to work, most likely by transit through the Charles Street corridor. But where? Is there a place in Baltimore that is walkable, beautiful, alive, and delicious? I sometimes think about moving to DC (a city we know well and enjoy). We can afford it, but I know the commute would be miserable and we'll save a great deal of money by living in Baltimore. I really desperately want to like Baltimore, but I don't know where to look. What am I missing?

[One more thing -- we like the people here and don't look down on our neighbors. It feels strange to have to add this disclaimer, but many Baltimoreans (and Hampdenites in particular) are extremely defensive of their city and seem to immediately dismiss anyone who would even consider living in DC as arrogant scum. I don't hate Baltimore; I am simply looking for a way to love it on my own terms.]
posted by alopez to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Book Thing.
posted by nathancaswell at 12:15 PM on November 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Consider moving to Butcher's Hill. Sure, there's a lot of decay, as there is everywhere, but you can walk safely from there to Fells Point, Canton and Highlandtown, all quirky, great neighborhoods with a lot of charm. For your foodie needs, there are lots of restaurants, the Fells Point Market and any number of strange little delis and eateries in Highlandtown and Greektown. Also, you have Patterson Park, one of the best things about Baltimore to my way of thinking. And the Canton Safeway is much much better than the Rotunda Giant.

I am a long term ex-Baltimoron so you should probably take what I say with a teaspoon of salt. I mean I haven't lived there for over a decade. However I still have friends in the city - in Hampden and in Butcher's Hill - and I still prefer Butcher's Hill.
posted by mygothlaundry at 12:27 PM on November 8, 2011

You said you loved walking through the European city you used to live in, so maybe Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore by Madison Smartt Bell could help kindle some enthusiasm for Baltimore?
posted by mlis at 12:43 PM on November 8, 2011

Baltimore is one of my favorite cities in the world, but I can see how it wouldn't be for everyone. My experience is remote enough from yours that I won't try to answer your broader question (above the fold), but I would suggest one immediate solution to your grocery issue- Eddie's of Roland Park on Roland Ave is quite near Hampden and miles better than the Superfresh or Rotunda Giant.

Also, I think you may be giving Mt. Vernon short shrift.

Perhaps getting involved in efforts to revitalize the city would help? There are a thousand angles for that, and most of them are fulfilling rather than depressing. Baltimore Heritage is a fun group- maybe visiting some of the forgotten corners of the city with people in the know and advocating for good public policy might kindle some enthusiasm for the place.
posted by GodricVT at 12:53 PM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I lived in a Baltimore suburb for 12 years and I think your characterization the city is spot on. I liked downtown Baltimore, but it does have its own quirky personality, which Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist captures perfectly.

Because of the urban decay issue (which has only gotten worse in the 12 years I left the area), you might find DC more amenable, especially if you were convenient to DC's Union Station and the MARC trains that run between DC and Baltimore.
posted by apartment dweller at 4:27 PM on November 8, 2011

I was in Hampden a few weeks ago and it is nice to visit for a while. And I realized very quickly that I am much better off in the DC area for the reasons you give, and would be tremendously unhappy living in Baltimore. I love music but I don't go to shows that much that it's worth it to me to move up there just for the scene. Yes DC is full of arrogant yuppie scum etc. but it is also more international and diverse and above all, you can walk and bike just about everywhere - miles and miles across the city. Of course, DC to Baltimore is a bad commute, and with the price of real estate and rentals here people are going to look at you like you're crazy, but.. if you moved to Capitol Hill not far from Union Station you could always get the MARC train.
posted by citron at 8:48 PM on November 8, 2011

I'm a little unclear on what exactly you are looking for. I was going to write that a few suggestions come to mind, but it's turned into a bit of a list.

1. How comfortable are you on a bike? Baltimore really came alive for me in the last year or so since I started biking everywhere. The May Day Roll sealed the deal.
2. The impassable ravine...do you mean I-83? I recently rode up Falls Rd. to Hampden because my new job is moving there in January. Then I crossed under I-83 to the Clipper Mill development in Woodberry, specifically to check out the Jones Fall Trail as it winds through Druid Hill Park on my way back downtown. The entrance is at the south end of the 3400 block of Parkdale Ave. If you enjoy nature at all, make sure to check it out. It is now one of my favorite spots in all of Baltimore.
3. If you don't cross under I-83, how do you use the light rail?
4. If you're looking for bustling street life, have you been to Lexington Market or downtown on a weekday?
5. You've seen Federal Hill, and I assume you've seen the nearby restaurants along Light St. But have you checked out St. Paul St?
6. The Waverly Farmer's Market isn't that far away and has great food choices. It is year round on Saturday mornings. I highly recommend breakfast from Blacksauce Kitchen while you're there. (on preview, I see you mentioned the market. I'll leave my recommendation in for the biscuits. Also, when are you going? I find the market to be much more enjoyable the earlier I go due to the smaller crowds.) And it's easy (at least for me) to hit up the Safeway on 25th on the way home for anything I didn't get at the market.
7. Speaking of food, have you tried Trinacria Italian Market yet?

8. Finally, and most importantly, come to the Baltimore meetup/potluck this Friday at the Bromo Seltzer Tower! I find that making new friends is the one thing guaranteed to make an unfamiliar city home.

PS - Don't do the commute from DC. I did the Baltimore to DC commute the last three years and it sucked. I spent at least three hours a day commuting, and sometimes that climbed above five hours. You're suggesting doing that commute in reverse, so take "it sucked" and cut out a third of the train service. DC's great, but don't do that commute.
posted by postel's law at 9:14 PM on November 8, 2011

Charm city is also Monument City, it has a huge number of outdoor sculptures and historic landmarks that are fun to explore

the light rail goes directly to Hunt Valley which has a giant Wegman's if you're looking for lots of variations in groceries.
posted by FatRabbit at 6:33 AM on November 9, 2011

Baltimore really varies. I've lived in Patterson Park (which made me miserable, lovely park, though) and Greenmount West (a place I dearly love, but isn't for everyone). What helped me fall in love with the city was to pick up City Paper every week and made myself go to stuff that looked interesting. There are all kinds of museums all over the city. AVAM is my favourite, but I'm also very fond of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and the Maryland Historical Society's furniture floor is very interesting (and I don't like furniture).

I would suggest heading out to Highlandtown (on the 10 bus). Eat at Chicken Rico, try the Highlandtown Market across the street for groceries (they have an excellent full line of Middle Eastern foods, of all things, as well as Latino and Anglo stuff). Poke around the little shops. It is a bit gritty, but it is also one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in the city. The public transit (which I depend on, being carless by choice) isn't very good there, however.

The local architects offer some great tours and lectures. Had no idea architecture was at all interesting until I ran across them at the book festival. Some other local groups do walking tours, too.

I far prefer Upper Fells to Fells Point, but do get down to the Fells Point Festival next fall. It is great fun, and varies from local artists to salsa to (ignorable) commercial booths. There are a lot of good festivals, actually, although, with the time change, not until next spring.

Used to belong to the kayak club. Great way to get a different view of the city, fun and inexpensive.

As a Greenmount West resident, I must mention Station North. Always a lot going on there, all kinds of arts stuff, some good restaurants (Joe Squared Pizza and Tapas Teatro, among others) and excellent public transit.

Baltimore is very neighbourhoody. If you ask 20 residents about the city, you'll get 20 different answers. People tend to stick close to home. Still, start asking folks what they think is cool. I've learned a lot about the city talking with people on the bus.

I love it here, but I suspect that is, in part, because I threw myself in to it.
posted by QIbHom at 10:13 AM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you seen this? A tour hosted by sonascope on Friday. If anyone can teach you to love Baltimore...
posted by likeso at 3:14 AM on November 10, 2011

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