My wife and I snuck in a little “us time” this past weekend. We took the train to Baltimore to look at boats, eat out for a change and just be alone for a while. As it turns out Baltimore manufactured it’s own nickname “Charm city” in the late 70’s when the Mayor commissioned a group of local ad executives to come up with a campaign to change the city’s image.
Baltimore was a rough place in the late 60’s and 70’s, run down too. Now it has a shiny, almost Disney’esque waterfront area thanks to that Mayor, as well as several attractive services like free busses that circulate throughout the city. They are very clean and bright. It was only one comment from a street performer made me look a lot harder at the city while I was there, and listen a lot closer to what people said. Don’t get me wrong here, Baltimore is a very cool town, lots to see and do. The people I met were unfailingly polite and helpful, the weather was mild and pleasant and it’s an easy city to walk in.
To take advantage of that we strolled down to the boat show, ready to pry into all the waiting nautical nooks and crannies. Our first, best retirement plan is to be constantly mobile on the rivers, lakes and seas of the world, or at least the parts within a hundred miles of tera firma. My wife loves boats but has great doubts about thousands of miles of ocean. For me it’s a chance to wake up with a panoramic ocean view where the waters are turquoise blue, deep and clear enough to see down 100 feet. That way I can see the “big things” coming, before I go in for a dip.
The first city attraction we encountered was a small but sturdy group of protestors. “Occupy Baltimore” was out and working hard to gather strength. They need it, some of the passing motorists they hoped to entreat with their signs and slogans yelled “Get a job, Jerk” while others just flipped them the “Bird.” The 99 percenters yelled back “Love to, where’s my job?”
One protestor objected to getting flipped off. A guy about my age, late fifties, followed his persecutor until the light stopped traffic in the middle of the block. He stood outside the black SUV passenger window and kept his own middle digit raised firmly in defiance. After a couple of long seconds of stand-off by finger, another protestor, possibly an organizer, walked out to him and said “You’re not doing the movement any good right now, come on back.” I was impressed. “Awesome” I whispered. They understand the power of of not getting sucked in to a fight, how convincing it can be and how difficult to maintain.
They had their supporters though, a lot of cars tooted their horns in praise, drivers raising their fists and yelling “Stay strong!” They also seemed to have a regular flow of donations coming in. I made sure they got a gift from New Jersey as well. I hope the weather holds out for them. I guess this was the first actual physical proof to me that the “Occupy movement” was really gaining support.
The next day I walked back to the hotel, alone this time. My wife had a case of sore arms and legs from too much clambering through tiny engine rooms, mounting and descending too many cramped companionways, and scaling far too many “flying bridges.” I stopped for a moment to watch a juggler entertaining a crowd. I love jugglers, it’s all so real, no tricks or magic, just hard work and learned skill. He was going through his “patter”, a mix of jokes and little demonstrations, when he said, “I love Baltimore. Walk five miles in any direction and you’re still at the scene of the crime.”
That’s when I first started to doubt the “Disney.” Just a chink in the shiny touristy facade, but a doubt just the same. Later that afternoon I went to get my wife a burger at the nearest McDonalds and got a better look behind the curtain.
I had walked a total of three blocks from our hotel on the edge of the revitalized downtown and waterfront area when familiar signals started to come in. A woman shouted to herself and kicked the wall of a building in fury. Young men traveled in groups of three and four, “soldiering” their way down the sidewalk. There was a distinct change in the feel of the city. The streets once so clean you could eat off them had become ones you’d rather not look at when even considering food. The faces of passerby’s had changed from bright and cheery to hard looking city masks, the faces we wear when we don’t want to interact with our surroundings.
The store fronts got dirtier, the doorways more crowded and the sunlight even seemed a little grey’er as I walked on. I made my way into the crowded Mikky D’s and above the constant buzz conversation came “Yo, Yo, Dude! Hey there brother, buy me a burger. Well how ‘bout a snak wrap then? Just a snak wrap man? One stinking dollar? Shiiiit!” The wanter and his intended benefactor locked eyes, quieting the restaurant and then turned away, each preferring not to pursue.
Standing in line, slowly coming to terms with the change in the environment and involuntarily hardening back into the the deep city dweller I’d been in my youth, I gazed out the side door avoiding eye contact. There it was, if there had been a sign that said “Combat zone” it couldn’t have been clearer. It was a street of dirty windows, broken store fronts, people, worn and dirty, sitting on the inevitable plastic spackle buckets and wrapped in a thick atmosphere of desperation. Passerby’s either walked quickly and purposefully, hands jammed in pockets and bags held tight or they passed slowly, fitfully as if they had no where to go at all. Heads were either locked forward, or constantly turning with eyes that swept over the streets evaluating, assessing the changing situation, hunting. This Baltimore didn’t smile welcomingly like the picturesque waterfront, it sneered back at me through the dirty glass door.
Each step out of there lifted another great weight off my mood, but made me even more thoughtful. Arriving back at the hotel, I checked the crime map at http://www.spotcrime.com/md/baltimore+county. There was a clear donut of criminal activity surrounding the shiny, gorgeous city center. Baltimore had pushed back the rough stuff into a solid ring, forcing problems out into the hinterlands.
That night, as we rolled along to the restaurant we passed through a tightly packed zone of strip clubs, to which my wife said “Oh look, this must be the tenderloin.” I’d never heard that phrase before, but looking out the window it seemed very apropos. The familiar bright colored lights garishly lit the crowded sidewalks filled with Barkers, Hook men and potential “ladies in waiting.” The tender loins were in great supply here.
On our last night in charm city we met my niece and her new husband for dinner. That’s one of the duties of uncles, visit, but not too closely and bring free meals. As it turns out her doctoral dissertation is about the effect of environment and upbringing on the spread of AIDS. She’d done much of her interview work in the very “tenderloin” we passed through the night before. She’s tough, learned her chops in Bagladesh and West Africa with the Peace Corps, Baltimore doesn’t bother her at all.
That next morning we lazily cabbed to a restaurant for brunch. It was our last hurrah before the train home, but I got hit again again, one more time for good luck. My wife asked the driver if he’d eaten at “Miss Shirleys” and did he like it? His answer was simple “No mam, poor people don’t eat there.” Somehow he answered in a way that made us feel incredibly stupid and wanton. Even though he was friendly, even affable, he’d put us securely in the “privileged” box and locked the door. Or maybe we did that?
We passed the “Occupy Baltimore” protestors once more on our way out of town, they waved their signs and shouted horsely of change. This time instead of thinking how brave and hopeful the protesters were, I thought about the two distinct sides of this great city. The shine and jingle of downtown and the waterfront, and the garish and grey desperation looming just a few blocks outside. It’s really a very American situation, just like the greatest nation on the planet which also claims the highest percentage of malnourished children in the first world. I found myself muttering “If this turns ugly, a lot of people are going to get hurt…… A lot are already hurting.”
Urban, or national renewal has to mean more than just pushing the problems away to fester in the distance. We have some really difficult challenges and the ways we typically try don’t seem to have much effect, or at least not enough effect. Certainly we haven’t created enough for a lasting permanent change. The greatest challenges cost the most, take the most time and often change societies the most as well. Ready or not, it’s time to face some realities and make those changes. I hope we figure this out before the donut hole closes, and things get a lot less charming.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011