I only had two associations with Baltimore before I went there – the musical Hairspray, and season 1 of the podcast Serial, which is about the real-life murder case of a high school student in Baltimore in 1999. So in other words, my only associations with Baltimore were racism and murder. Naturally, I was eager to go there and see what the real Baltimore is like.
We stayed in an artists’ collective in the Station North area. Our couchsurf host was one of around ten residents who share an abandoned warehouse building that is used for artists’ studios and living quarters. It’s mostly open plan – a big open-plan communal kitchen and some shared open-plan living spaces – but there were also some private rooms and studios. We slept on some sofas in one of the shared living spaces. It was one of the more interesting places we have stayed so far!
After meeting our couchsurf host and being shown round the place, we headed to Save-A-Lot, the nearest cheap supermarket, to buy some provisions. My first impressions of Baltimore as we walked through the streets were that it is actually pretty arty in that rugged, counter-culture way that two other cities also beginning with B and beloved of mine (Berlin and Bristol) are. (Of course, it turns out that the Station North area where we were staying was the first area in Baltimore to be designated an Arts and Entertainment District in 2002.)
Everywhere I looked there was amazing street art. I LOVE street art, by the way. In truth it is the only art form that I really enjoy looking at, apart from photography. I’ll go to an art gallery, sure, but I never really enjoy looking at paintings or sculptures or modern art installations as much as I enjoy looking at street art. I like the political messages, the clever witty ideas, the subversiveness and boldness of it. Call me a heathen, but whatever.
We also found a cool café called Red Emma’s on the way to Save-A-Lot, presumably named after anarchist and writer Emma Goldman. It was filled with Communist propaganda (OK, not really, but there was a bookshop there filled with all kinds of interesting books on topics including sex, psychology, and Native Americans.) We earmarked it to go back to the next day.
After making lunch with the provisions we had bought at Save-A-Lot – some delicious grilled cheese with avocado – we headed for the downtown area. We went via the Walters Art Museum, which we had a cursory look around but mainly just used as a place to sit down in (I don’t think either of us were able to summon up the appropriate amount of enthusiasm for an art museum – see my earlier comment about my appreciation of art), and also Lexington Market, which was really just a pretty standard indoor market. Then we headed for the harbour, which our couchsurf host had warned us was full of tourists and rich white people, but since there’s no denying that we are either tourists, white or rich (compared to most people in the world anyway, and probably most of the residents of Baltimore) we didn’t think that was necessarily a reason not to go.
The harbour was – well, a harbour – but we got free samples of Korean and Thai food from some street food stands so we were happy bunnies. We saw adverts for Light City Baltimore 2017, a city light show which was having its closing night that evening, but since we had already arranged to watch some improv comedy with our couchsurf host that evening we had to give it a miss. (Besides, I’d already seen Signal Fest in Prague, so I already had a pretty good idea of what city light shows are about.) After getting some Chipotle to go, we took advantage of Baltimore’s amazing free bus service – yes, that’s right, you heard correctly: the Baltimore Charm City line is completely 100% free to use – and rode it back to our couchsurf place.
I will just say at this point that Baltimore was the most obviously and strikingly poor city that we have visited so far on this trip. In the cities we had visited thus far, the poor parts seemed to be limited to certain areas, but everywhere in Baltimore looked a bit run-down, even the downtown area, and there were a lot of homeless people, people begging, and people who looked like they generally didn’t have anywhere to be.
It also seemed to have its fair share of crazy people, and since in general rich areas hide their crazies or kick them out, this also contributed to the feeling of general poverty and destitution. For example, a guy who looked like he’d done a bit too much crack in his time approached us near our car, and went on a 10-15 minute tirade about Trump and why he did the right thing with the Syrian air strikes (they had just happened the day before) and then walked off without either of us ever saying a word in the entire time he was conducting his monologue at us.
Baltimore used to be a predominantly industrial town, and was once a leading manufacturer in, bizarrely, rye whiskey and straw hats, as well as processing steel, shipping, and car manufacturing, but it has experienced a great deal of deindustrialisation since the 1950s, which cost residents tens of thousands of jobs.
Baltimore’s population has declined at each census since its peak in 1950. As of March 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates Baltimore’s unemployment rate at 8.1% (compared to the national average of 4.9%) while one quarter of Baltimore residents (and 37% of Baltimore children) live in poverty. 23.7% of the population live below the poverty line, compared to 13.5% nationwide. The homeless population is steadily increasing according to a 2011 study (especially the number of young homeless people); it exceeded 4,000 people in 2011. Homicide rates in Baltimore have consistently stayed above the national average – in fact, it has the second highest murder rate for cities in the US, even coming ahead of Detroit. All of this is not to cast a bad light on Baltimore – merely to say that my passing, anecdotal impressions seem to be borne out by the statistics, and that the poverty, homelessness and unemployment that the statistics describe are pretty apparent.
In the evening we went to watch some improv comedy at the Single Carrot Theatre. It was quite a coincidence that our couchsurf host invited us to watch it because I have recently started doing improv comedy classes myself in Prague. It turned out that we had started doing improv classes at pretty much the same time as each other so we were both beginners, and some of the people we were watching in the show were her teachers (I also go and watch my improv teachers do shows in Prague sometimes). We watched two improv shows for $5 and they were pretty funny, but quite different from the style I am used to watching in Prague. It was a fun night out though and nice to do something chilled out and a bit different.
The next day we went back to Red Emma’s, the cool cafe and bookshop we had spotted on our way to Save-A-Lot the day before, and enjoyed their coffee and free Wi-Fi, before heading on to our next destination.
I would have liked to check out some of the places that are mentioned in Serial so I could finally put places to names – Woodlawn High School, Leakin Park – but on reflection, cruising past a high school just to stare at it seems a bit creepy and might be looked on with suspicion, and the idea of going to a park known for the high number of bodies buried there doesn’t seem so appealing either, so we didn’t do that, and the places live on as almost mythical entities in my imagination.
I feel like we didn’t really do Baltimore justice in our brief 24 hours there – there are loads of things that we didn’t get to see that are meant to be really cool. Baltimore is known as a city of many diverse neighbourhoods, and we obviously didn’t have time to explore even a fraction of them. It has more public monuments per capita than any other city in the US, Edgar Allan Poe’s house is there, and the lyrics to the national anthem were written there. I feel that we may have done it a disservice by spending so little time there, but on a road trip like this, you can really only form brief fleeting impressions of places, and the best I can do is offer up these, my brief fleeting impressions of Baltimore.