Thursday, October 07, 2010

Day trip to Baltimore

Yesterday we rented a car and drove up to Baltimore. We started off in Fells Point, which is an old waterfront part of town, much like South Street Seaport and Fulton Street in New York.

We grabbed lunch at a no-frills diner called Jimmy's Restaurant under an autographed photo of Bill Cosby with Jimmy. This was on my paper placemat.


The Philly cheesesteak I had was good that it took me immediately back to my college days in Philly. The cheesesteaks I had during school came from a nondescript food truck, and I had one almost every day. The other things I ate on a daily basis were Korean bulgogi, also from a food truck, and Papa John's pizza. I really do not remembering eating much else.

After lunch, we walked a little north of Fells Point. Pubs and clothing boutiques gave way to Hispanic groceries, social clubs and churches. One building caught my eye and we paused, for in each second-story windowsill, there was a pigeon or two roosting and looking down at us. Then we looked through the first-floor storefront, which was all glass, reflecting the bright buildings across the street, and we noticed it was an old-school barbershop. Evan said he needed a haircut, so he went in. While I debated whether to take a picture of the pigeons, the barber came out and threw a few crumpled slices of white bread onto the sidewalk. The pigeons swooped down, and a few more from the neighborhood flew in too. Despite the fact that I have softened considerably towards pigeons ever since my law firm days, where I shared an office with an off-duty animal rights activist for a year, I do still flinch when a whole bunch of them swoop around me at once.

the real birds
spot the fake birds
So I hurried into the barbershop. It looked exactly as though the last twenty or so years had never happened, and it turned out that the barber, Julio Rodriguez, has been cutting hair there for 37 years. He gave Evan a haircut I've never seen on Evan, very short, which I liked very much!

Then we headed off to the American Visionary Art Museum in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. The museum showcases artists who are self-taught and/or "outsiders" (mentally ill, homeless, recluses, e.g.). WOW. Museum art rarely carries such a visceral impact. The "outsiders" used a lot of broken glass and mirrors in sculptural paintings, a choice of material that was eloquent both visually and politically. Much of the art was also incredibly playful and made you feel like a kid all over again: home-made robots, giant pedicab floats, and wooden models.

Where next? We decided on a whim to go see Fort McHenry. Sadly, we pulled up to the gate were a National Parks ranger told us we had five minutes. That was exactly enough time to pull into the parking lot, hop out and get within a few hundred feet, survey the land and water around it, and run back to the car to make it out on time. Spontaneity has its pitfalls sometimes.

Dinnertime took us to the north of Baltimore for our reservation at Woodberry Kitchen. (This I planned days in advance!) We were early, so we parked and walked a bit of the Jones Falls trail in Druid Hill Park, a path through a very wild park. After half an hour, the woods opened onto manicured lawns that had strange looking things that a few guys in their 20s and 30s were throwing small frisbees at from a long distance. It turns out that it's a sport called disc golf, and it even has a professional association. If you've never seen it, here's a YouTube video of a guy playing it in Druid Hill Park. (Warning: It's 9 minutes long.)

On our way back to the restaurant, we walked past a down-on-its-heels public playground.

It was hard to believe that less than three blocks away were brand-new, very modern-designy homes in the redeveloped Clipper Mill that, it turns out, start at $499,000. After dinner, the drive home took us past more of the same urban neglect that the playground had given us a taste of. We passed through west Baltimore on our way to the highway back to Annapolis, and what we saw had Evan and me wondering if this is where "The Wire" took place. (We haven't seen the show, unlike every person we know who's ever heard of Baltimore.) First we saw a few houses boarded up, then a few more, then entire blocks. As Brian, the Baltimore native who fixed our watermaker, said when we told him that New York was pretty much transformed from how it was in the 70s and 80s,

"That's good to hear. There might be hope for Baltimore after all."

Let's hope so, because Baltimore has so much of some of what makes for a great city: history, great food, eccentrics, diversity, a unique beauty, and charisma.

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