Photo: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

On a Bleak Walk Through Baltimore

by Aaron Hamburger Apr 29, 2015

ON THE NIGHT of the Baltimore riots, the Trinacaria Italian Deli and Café, a local landmark, updated their Facebook page to read:

“Café has been destroyed. Deli. Is next. Thanks baltimore.”

Only a month earlier, on my first trip to Maryland’s largest city, I had visited this café, sat alone in a room mostly empty of customers, and eaten a vegetarian panini stuffed with red peppers and olives and dripping with strands of melted cheese.

Now, reading about the café’s destruction, I felt shock and sadness, but not surprise. In the few hours I spent walking across the center of Baltimore, I felt a kind of post-apocalyptic bleakness that made me all too glad to escape.

Ever since moving to Washington, DC, I’d been curious about Baltimore, which somehow seemed to me a grittier, funkier alternative to its conservative neighbor to the south. Also, a place that had given the world John Waters, Anne Tyler, and fudge-topped cakey Berger Cookies couldn’t be all bad.

Though the city is less than an hour’s drive from where I live, traffic permitting, I chose to take the train there and then walk, to get a sense of how the rhythms of daily life shift from neighborhood to neighborhood.

“That’s not what you do in Baltimore,” a friend who’d moved from Baltimore to DC told me later. The “you” he meant was “you as a middle-class white person.”

Arriving in Baltimore’s diminutive Penn Station felt like an anti-climax. Coming up the escalator from my train, I passed a newsstand, a Dunkin’ Donuts, and an advertisement for an exhibition called “Blacks in Wax.”

I picked up a few brochures from a stand tucked into a corner. (Do other people still pick those up? I do, anyway.) According to one brochure called “Charles Street: Not Your Ordinary Scenic Byway,” a brief stroll down the street from the train station would take me to the historic and scenic neighborhood of Mount Vernon. From there I could walk ten minutes toward Lexington Market, home to the famous crab cakes at Faidley’s.

It seemed a pleasant enough itinerary, and maybe I might have enjoyed it more had I not begun my day by turning the wrong way, toward what my brochure had dubbed the Station North Arts District, “an exciting area of artist studios, galleries, restaurants, and performance venues.”

In fact, the neighborhood reminded me of several seedy quarters near train stations in cities all over the world. I passed a defunct bank whose neoclassical columns were now serving as display racks for used clothing, a kind of unofficial flea market. I passed dark open doorways I did not care to stare into, let alone enter. I passed homeless people with hard skin, painfully emaciated arms, and rotten teeth clutching crumpled dollar bills on street corners. As I walked along, one of these people spat at me.

Doubling back toward the center of town, I passed over a bridge toward the town center. My experience changed block by block. One minute I was in Mount Vernon, once home to the richest people in the city, now home to university students and signs encouraging people to invest in real estate in the area. A few minutes later, I was at the Enoch Pratt Library, a beautiful, deteriorating Art Deco building that smelled of urine inside, possibly because it served as a de facto homeless shelter.

I continued toward Lexington Market, my white, well-scrubbed face standing out from the other sullen-looking pedestrians hanging out on the scarred, uneven pavement in front of businesses like “King Tut Jewelry,” “Island Vybz Café 2,” and “Easy Pawn.”

The Market itself was a crowded jumble of vendors selling greasy food and harried mothers screaming at too many children left in their charge. A tired young woman handed me a crab cake on a paper plate, which I quickly inhaled while standing up, then booked it for the subway, where I boarded a train with broken seats and scratched windows.

Later, my friend from Baltimore said to me in disbelief, “You took the subway?!”

I got off near the Inner Harbor, where gleaming sidewalks ran between Barnes & Noble, Hard Rock Café, and H&M. The city’s famous glass-peaked Aquarium glittered above the water. Walking there, I felt perfectly safe — and soulless.

As I write this, I keep hearing my friend’s advice: You don’t walk in Baltimore. You don’t take the subway in Baltimore. Perhaps if I’d taken taxis or buses from stop to stop, I might have found the city less desolate. Maybe if I’d chosen different routes at different times of day, I might have spun a different narrative about my trip. And yes, certainly it’s unreasonable to think that a day’s walking in a strange place can give you a sense of its pulse.

Yet as travelers, our impressions are not formed by balancing and measuring our responses to our experiences against facts and figures. They’re highly subjective snapshots in time, often subject to whims of circumstance. I’m reminded here of the old joke from E. M. Forster’s classic novel of tourism A Room with a View, when an ugly American says of Rome, “Rome was where we saw the yellow dog!”

Upon leaving Baltimore, I felt flooded with a sense of gratitude and relief. And now when I see the fires and people of that city raging on the news, when I hear the disappointment and despair of residents wondering about their future, when I read the sardonic “Thanks baltimore” on Trinacaria’s Facebook page, it only seems to confirm the brief bleakness I experienced there.

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