Monday, October 10, 2011
Last week, after previously only having passed through, I finally visited the Maryland port city of The Wire fame. And I like it. Superficially, it has the raw, edgy, post-industrial feel I find beneficial to my photography, heaps of kitsch and, compared to Washington, drastically cheaper prices. As cliché as it sounds, it feels like a real city, for real people. The Salon sums the city up best, calling it "equal parts kitschy, sketchy, artsy and weird." Plus, it has the added benefit that, if all else sucked (which it doesn’t), I would at least have the possibility to walk around, pretending I am in a real-life version of The Wire.
Despite having a smaller population, it feels much larger than Washington. I primarily attribute this to its sheer size, but also to its skyscraper-having waterfront and downtown, and, the presence of heavy industry in the city. Indeed, prior to suburbanization and white flight, Baltimore boasted an impressive 900,000 people. The culture is much-less transplant-y, too. For instance, all of the sports teams flags I saw were for Baltimore teams - not like DC where Auburn, Ohio State, and Florida flags dominate. Even the culture feels unique; Baltimore-only foods like “laketrout” and pit beef are prevalent, and people in the city’s Northwest use the word “hon” extensively and with affection.
The (actual) Harbor area was nice - especially the relaxed, under-the-radar Eastern portion, with its balanced mix of residential lofts, and still-operating industrial/naval uses. In particular, I enjoyed sitting along the docks, taking in the tranquil, almost idyllic scenes. And reflecting on Frank Sobotka. RIP, Frank Sobotka.
On the topic of Frank Sobotka, Fells Point, the area depicted in Season 2, was a personal favorite. Its upper portion is a decidedly blue collar neighborhood of low-slung formstone rowhouses, Spanish-language menu taquerías, auto-body shops, and un-ironic thrift stores. The lower, coast-hugging portion is more developed and gentrified, with beer gardens, loft conversions, spendy gastropubs, and trendy, wharfside restaurants selling locally-sourced seafood. Surprisingly, the former center of Polish Baltimore does a good job balancing the old and new. I still find it bizarre, though: old turn-of-the-century buildings, complete with Polish engraving and insignia, functioning as Mexican botánicas and wire transfer businesses. I liked the vibe there.
It is the city’s kitschy aesthetic that most amuses me. The unintentionally hilarious store names, over-the-top Halloween and yard decorations, and amusing, if patronizing, street characters. And, of course, the random, feral cats milling about on rowhouse windowsills. Too, I cannot forget the hard-nosed, no BS, DIY men, who, from their stoops, greet passerbyers and keep an eye out for crime.
The city’s infamous, plentiful ghettos, however, are as bad you as probably think they are. Walking along Druid Hill Road, upon crossing the Mondawmin Mall, I definitely knew I was in Da Hood. The landscape abruptly switched from weathered, but still occupied rowhomes, to all-out abandonment; homes with burned-out roofs, hallowed shells, and structurally-unsound facades. It went from old-timey, working class ethnic whites (Irish Catholics, mainly) doing yardwork, and hanging out in dark, hazy, crappy domestic brew-serving bars illuminated by pinball machines and jukeboxes, to little Michael’s and Bodie’s hanging in front of bulletproof, Korean-run liquor stores and shuttered storefront churches. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone: I would walk on a seemingly empty block, only to see men pour out of alleys, and curtains flutter as I passed by. In many of these ghettos, I wonder if at all there is a government presence. Lawless, all-but abandoned, and full of despair, it sure didn’t feel that way.
I will be back, though!