I moved here when I was in 6th grade. It's becoming very, very hard for me to remember life before then. Germany, basically. So for all intents and purposes my existence as I know it started when I moved to Baltimore.
What makes this so ironic is that I began my life by migrating to a dying city.
I don't mean that in a bad way. Baltimore is a great city, of course, but there is no question that it's dying. Many cities have peaks, then depressions, peaks, depressions... has Baltimore ever had a peak? Not in this century, at least. We've had a steadily dropping population (300 thou now compared to 1960's 600 thou), consistent rises in crime, bad economy, etc. Things have been getting worse in Baltimore for so long now that it's become an essential part of the city's history. The culture is, in many ways, defined by a strange sense that it's pointless to hope for some future based on capitalist dreams. Baltimore isn't going to become a beautiful, booming, sky-rise metropolis anytime soon.
It is for precisely this reason that it has its charm.
I mean, when you think of what makes Baltimore appealing, it really is odd, isn't it? Anne Tyler described any entrance to Baltimore as initially jarring, as one will notice grease, grime and oil absolutely everywhere, covering the tiny rowhouses, the cracked streets, the run-down venues... unless, of course, you live here, in which case it's all very comforting.
You like the grime, you like the fact that everything, absolutely everything, is stained and faded. Everything in the entire city, and even in many parts of the surrounding county, looks as though it was built sometime in the 50's and hasn't been sweeped since. I'm thinking mainly of the schools for the county bit(except THS, and that's just a fluke anyway, much like everything else about Towson).
I realized this because I can remember one thing about Germany. I remember Ben's apartment on the Weschtadt. I remember that I really didn't like it at all, Ben if you're reading this I'm sorry, but I didn't. It wasn't the actual apartment, it was the entire place. It was grimy, and dusty and musty, and very old, and I didn't like it. And yet I like Baltimore for the same reasons.
Maybe it's because here those sorts of things have created a thriving culture of cynical Bohemians. Unlike places like New York, however, where Bohemia is corrupted by rich software designers and fashion whores, hippies and artists in Baltimore remain pure hippies and artists. They reside in poor rowhouses, dirty houses, they walk streets everyday with a high chance of getting mugged, and generally live lives that would be derided and avoided by rich faux-culturites hoping to cash in on American artistic culture. In essence, it remains a weird form of pure. It remains clean precisely because no one ever took the time to wipe off the grease and grime and soot.
Everyone can see the entire history, dirt particle by dirt particle, of everything. Same with the people: one can see their entire history, facial line by scar by line under eye. It creates an unparalleled honesty.
Honestly, who would you trust more: an artist/entrepreneur who meets you holding his latest high tech Apple gadgets, checking his PalmPilot to make sure he isn't missing something more important than you and going on about the flashiest, suavest, most fashionable things of late, OR a scraggly, bearded, weather-worn man who rides an old bike from the 70's to meet you at a coffeeshop carting a stack of progressive newspapers and a small pile of beaten and battered library books from obscure beatnik poets?
If anyone says the first person, call me, because we need to have a serious talk about life, the universe, and everything.
The best way to describe, to me, is to define cities as people. You know, Detroit's kind of a sleazeball, a football-watching, beer-guzzling kind of jock. New York is a middle-aged rich man, yet one who grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood playing stickball with the local Italians. Miami is a Latin pimp.
I doubt there's anyone that disagrees with me on this: Baltimore is a very wise old black guy. Maybe he's blind, maybe he walks with a cane (or walking stick, rather). But he is definitely a very wise old black guy. He has lived a life that has brought him many, many tribulations, and many, many hard decisions, so when it comes down to it, you're going to listen to what he has to say. No matter how weather-worn he may appear, anyone listening knows what they're getting is both honest and time-tested. And when he talks, he speaks with jive, style, and class. You listen, and you have a lot of fun doing so.
As much as I'll enjoy discovering wherever the hell I end up in college, I'm going to miss that guy.
The Greatest City on Earth
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