Don’t overlook Baltimore

There are reasons it’s also known as Charm City. Or, as they say of neighboring D.C., it has Northern charm combined with Southern inefficiency. By the way, don’t blame me for that perspective.

USS Constellation, built in 1855, graces the Inner Harbor. (Photo via Wikimedia)
  1. Baseball great Babe Ruth was born here (1895) and poet Edgar Allan Poe died a drunk on its streets (1849).
  2. Speaking of baseball, the Camden Yard ballpark spurred the return of smaller professional arenas to central cities across the continent. Now, if the Birds could only fly higher than the Yankees or Red Sox in their division. They really are doomed in that association.
  3. Speaking of birds, the Baltimore Oriole got its name because its colors resembled those of the coat of arms of Maryland founder Lord Calvert. I have no idea about their religion, but he was an advocate of religious liberty.
  4. The port was second only to Ellis Island in the number of immigrant arrivals in the 19th century. And while the city sits below the Mason-Dixon line and has a Southern outlook, it also has a strong German presence and Northern connection strengthened by the Baltimore & Ohio train tracks.
  5. With his profits from those rails, Quaker Johns Hopkins founded the nation’s first research university in 1876. Today it and its related hospital and institutions are the state’s largest employer.
  6. The metro area is also home to McCormick spices. You can smell it in the humid spring air.
  7. The National Aquarium crowns the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor as a popular destination. The waterfront is also graced by the tall-masted USS Constellation of Civil War glory.
  8. American Methodism was founded in 1784 at the site of today’s Lovely Lane church. And a 1789 conference at Old Otterbein Church led to the formation of the United Brethren denomination of German-Americans (it merged in 1968 with the Methodists, giving them the “United” in today’s name). Also in 1789, the nation’s first Roman Catholic archdiocese was founded in the city; its cathedral was finished in 1821. It even produced a saint, I believe.
  9. A flag waving over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to the National Anthem, the one that was much in the air yesterday, but the music’s from a much older British drinking song. How ironic, especially since it challenges even the most professional singers.
  10. The city doesn’t show up in my fiction, despite my living in the inner city’s Bolton Hill and suburban Owings Mills for three years. Even if the place is so hot and humid you have to turn on your air conditioner on the same day you turn off your furnace. Or, as they say of neighboring Worshington, it’s built over a swamp you know.

My big city love-hate relationship

Considering all the places I’ve lived over the years, my fascination with big cities would seem an anomaly.

I mean, I grew up in what’s considered a medium-sized city but at the fringe of the city limits. We actually had a working dairy farm less than a block away from our house. As a teen I could ride my bicycle to the public library downtown or my grandparents beyond, though it was in heavy traffic. But that was before the suburban bloat that now engulfs its blot on the map.

I also lived on three farms, which make appearances in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, Yoga Bootcamp, and the upcoming Nearly Canaan.

Most of the cities were in the 30,000 to 40,000 population range, with Baltimore being the metropolitan exception and Binghamton, New York, and Manchester, New Hampshire, each around 100,000 in the metropolitan area, coming in much smaller than my hometown.

These days I live an hour north of Boston – or more, depending on traffic.

Yes, I do have a certificate in urban studies as part of my college diploma, and cities are the home to high culture I find essential – symphony orchestras, opera companies, art museums and galleries, live theater, art movie houses.

Yet I rarely venture forth to these, in part because of the expense and in part because I find myself being nurtured by them in other ways. For instance, I habitually listen to live broadcasts of Boston Symphony concerts and Metropolitan Opera performances. And I do sing in a choir in a Boston suburb and have wonderful memories of the city’s skyline after some of our concerts. That part’s magical. But all in all, it’s kind of like listening to the Sox games rather than actually going to Fenway … just part of life around here.

Each week, as I go to rehearsals, I’m always astonished at the lines of cars waiting ten or twenty minutes just to get off an expressway in afternoon rush hour traffic. Just think of the stress and precious time that’s expended daily. I’m so glad I’ve been spared that.

As for the packed subway trains at that hour? It’s a fascinating study in humanity, but for me it borders on claustrophobia plus. Somehow, I’ve survived those, uh, assaults of moving from one station to another. Nowadays I can walk to downtown.

My novel Subway Visions stands as an emblem of my relationship to a big city. Like Kenzie, I once thought I’d be living and working in cosmopolitan circles. I came close once, in Detroit – hardly my ideal, then or now. As for Baltimore, I was largely out on the road during the week and, when that ceased, I hunkered down in a self-awarded sabbatical. So events ultimately led me in other directions.

I do enjoy our trips into Boston and, these days, other New England cities. But candidly, I also relish returning home to our small historic mill town of 30,000, free of so much kinetic energy in the air. How else do you think I find time to write?

Polycentric community adds up

With the release of Subway Visions, I’ve been returning to considerations of urban affairs. It’s not all New York City, either, even though the novel takes place there.

For me, the big city these days is Boston. I live an hour to the north – or northeast, more technically. I can even take the train in, as well as the hourly bus, which is quite comfortable and also links us to the airport. (You’d be surprised at the number of pilots and other airline personnel who are boarding from here.)

So we can go in for concerts or museums or dim sum on weekday mornings. We’re not exactly stuck in the sticks.

On the other hand, I live in a city of nearly 30,000 – the largest of a cluster of small cities that together form a larger population base to sustain our varied interests.

Portsmouth, 15 minutes to our south, is wealthier and more fashionable. It has probably as many restaurants per capita as Manhattan as well as several theater companies, the Music Hall, and art galleries.

The state university is ten minutes to our west, and about a third of its students rent apartments in our city. The school runs its own buses to serve them and anyone else who wants to pay to ride. Its library, of course, is a marvelous resource for independent writers and scholars.

In other words, I have no reason to feel deprived. Well, sometimes I wish the Harvard Book Store were closer or Symphony Hall. But I still have my choir in Watertown.

Looking at this has me recalling my mentor in political science, Vincent Ostrom, who coined the concept of “polycentric” to describe the overlapping jurisdictions that govern American polity. A city typically falls within a county, for instance, as well as a state and then the nation. Nowadays there may also be special districts to address things like water, pollution, or transportation needs.

As mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer took the concept in another direction by enhancing neighborhood identity and decision-making to revitalize a big city. Adjustments could be made in neighborhood settings even while having a central tax base, police and fire services, water and sewer system, and so on.

So my city has a much different identity and feel from Portsmouth or Durham or Rochester or Somersworth or the Berwicks over the state line in Maine. And yet we’re all conscious, even proud, of our identity as the Seacoast Region.

Do you see how these many circles begin to overlap, each adding to the richness we enjoy?

As the hippie phrase used to go, “Small is beautiful.” But, in this universe I’m describing, it doesn’t have to be confining or impoverishing, either.

For now, I do feel I have the best of both worlds.

FROM MY LITTLE THIRD-FLOOR DECK

did I hear thunder?
coffee in the treetops

just a pony cart of vegetables
street vendor’s cry
(O! the Arabs of Baltimore!)
on his daily round
somehow getting by

yet clouds slipped in

with a long cord, the phone

this old apartment, all light and draught
the floor sinking, new cracks in the plaster
was giving way, downward, you could hear it in the night
paint flaking, more pieces falling to my bed

all going downhill, to the basement

rusty pipes, armies of cockroaches
at work in the walls

constantly dripping faucets
kitchen, shower, the bathroom sink

stacked magazines slid away on their own
new grit emerged immediately after sweeping

the faucet knobs never matched

water rings in the ceiling

blooms collapsing for lack of circulation

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