Baltimore's Inner Harbour
Oh, Baltimore - America
Hard times in the city
In a hard town by the sea
Nina Simone's Baltimore
‘Snoop’ aka Felicia Pearson was arrested on the streets of Baltimore last year. Her stint as an actress in cop show The Wire failed to sever her connections to the underworld and the former dealer again faces charges. Viewers of the brilliant series The Wire will be familiar with Baltimore’s violent drug gangs, corrupt politicians and failing schools but there is much more to the city.
Baltimore is Washington DC’s dirty sibling. Just 45 minutes away by train the shabby neighbourhoods of Bally-more, as the locals call it, seem a world away from the presidential avenues of the capital. Baltimore’s streets are blacker and more laid back than the clean cut, urgency you find among civil servants in Washington. There are areas of Baltimore that no one lives in any more – block after block of boarded up row houses. The drug dealers moved in and the respectable folks moved out. Baltimore’s industries closed and a period of white flight to the suburbs damaged the city’s education system. Swathes of the inner city became no-go areas.
But now things are changing. There has been massive urban redevelopment around the inner harbour. Blocks of smart apartments stand side by side with tourist attractions, designer stores and fancy seafood restaurants.
Better than this, in my opinion, is the organic regeneration of the city. Students, artists, musicians are moving in to ‘transitional’ neighbourhoods (the local euphemism for dodgy). There are grand but dilapidated four storey mansions to buy for a snip and young people are moving in and doing them up.
Baltimore has some surprising and appealing history. You can visit Fort McHenry famous for defending the harbour from an attack by the British Navy in 1812. It was during the bombardment of the fort that Francis Scott Key wrote ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. And it is the final resting place of macabre author Edgar Allen Poe who died in the city in 1849 under mysterious circumstances. Every year on Poe’s birthday, January 19, the Poe Toaster, a shadowy figure in black with a wide brimmed hat, visits his grave and leaves three red roses and a half empty bottle of cognac. Despite crowds waiting in the cold outside the graveyard for a glimpse of him the Poe Toaster has never been caught. It wasn’t Poe’s birthday when we were in Baltimore but we did read his poem ‘The Raven’ at his graveside.
For a bit of shiny, inspiring alternative culture you could do no better than a visit to the American Visionary Art Gallery on the edge of Baltimore’s inner harbour. It is full of fabulous, glitzy art by self-taught artists. Exhibits range from matchstick models of ocean liners to comedy performances. It is mostly irreverent and very entertaining.
There is also some excellent food in Baltimore. I highly recommend Miss Shirley’s Café for the best sandwiches, soups and all day breakfasts in town. Miss Shirley’s beef fillets, topped with asparagus, crab meat and Hollandaise sauce served with fried green tomatoes and grits was once voted Baltimore’s best breakfast. It would certainly keep you going until tea-time.
In the evenings there are plenty of places to go out and a thriving live music scene. We particularly enjoyed Joe Squared, a bar that serves pizza and loud, live music most days of the week. It is not swanky but with pizza, beer and a band what’s not to like?
A transition is occurring in Baltimore. It is the antithesis of sterile, branded America. It is something hipper, more local and yes a bit gritty. You still need to be careful where you walk at night in Baltimore, perhaps more than other American cities. But things are changing and students, musicians and artists are making the new scene in Baltimore. It certainly is a lot of fun.
- British Airways, American Airways and Iberia fly direct from London to Baltimore.
- The American Visionary Art Museum
- Find out more about Fort McHenry
- Miss Shirleys Café has two locations both serving delicious sandwiches, soups and breakfasts. Make your mouth water by looking at the website
- Find out what is on at Joe Squared
Lynn Morris is Director of Atlantic Rising