Sunday, May 02, 2010

Baltimore: The Hidden City

(National Geographic, February 1975)

At the nearby St. Pius Carnival, I browsed the used book sale and found scant offerings until I started leafing through a bound collection of National Geographic's from the '70s. There I spotted a February 1975 profile of "Baltimore: The Hidden City" by Fred Kline. Yes, Charm City was there representin' alongside articles describing other such "exotic" locales and peoples as Western Australia (which, unlike us, still has its own "Marble Bar"), Brazil's Indian tribes, and "Mysterious Jupiter"! 1975 was the year I granulated from high school, so I had to fork over the $2 to get it. (Irony upon ironies, it was my 35th Class Reunion was the very next night)!

I must quote the opening, which describes my hometown before Harbor Place, before Homicide, before The Wire - and post John Waters but pre-Hairspray on Broadway!

I was driving from Washington, D.C., to New York City when I glanced to my left and saw Baltimore for the first time. My impressions: bleak, run-down, 19th century industrial - in a word, ugly. I saw Factory Town, a chuckhole in the eastern megalopolis that fortunately I could drive around, under, and away from via the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. And so it has been for years: an undiscovered city, prejudged by motorists passing its industrial outskirts at 50 miles an hour.

But now I've been to Baltimore - 246-year-old Baltimore by the Chesapeake - and what surpirises greeted me! Having wandered her neighborhoods and met her people, having been touched by the doughty spirit of the city, I know what I fisrt saw was just a tattered overcoat - only one aspect of a city whose singular character, charm, and yes, even beauty, have made those early impressions fade like a mirage.

Second impressions: mellow, antique, friendly. Riding the gentle slopes ofthe land, waves of row houses - neighborly, Victorian, of enduring brick - line the streets in subtly changing patterns. Church steeples punctuate the cityscape like the masts of giant ships. Islandlike parks offer sanctuary, trees offer shade. Relaxed old buildings speak of things past; tense new buildings listen.

Is this the same place others have called Mob Town, Nickle Town, a Loser's Town?

Um, yup! Same place, Loser Town. (Just ask the Orioles.)

When I showed the article to Amy, she liked the next line:
"Nicknames be damned," said Sweeney the cabbie. "Save me from 'em. Friends I grew up wit still call me 'Beano.' Ain't that a pip?"
"A pip?" she laughed. "I've never heard anybody talk like that around here - and I'm from Dundalk!"

Too bad there hasn't been a follow-up article, I thought. They could tout Dundalk for winning this year's Toilet Bowl and reclaiming the Middle River shit plant "Eggs"!

The National Geographic piece ends with this summation of our town:
"...Baltimore - an old-fashioned city with gumption, perservering with style, like a small traveling circus in a modernizing world. A city that doesn't become sentimental about her. In fact, I'd say that's the secret of her charm."

Charm city indeed!


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