Some cities just get a bad rap; none more than Baltimore. No question the city has struggled with corrupt politics, drugs and violence. But that’s the Baltimore that always makes headlines, from The Wire, the terrific TV show about the city’s seamy side, to the riots following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
But this city is so much more, an informal, friendly place with excellent, varied and reasonably priced restaurants and bars; beautiful walks along its waterfront; one of the best baseball stadiums in America; a rich sense of history; excellent art museums and a personal culture often seen in conversations on front stoops, on park benches and in chance meetings in public spaces.
Betsy, our older daughter, left home 20 years ago at 18 to enroll in Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She never came back. She’s lived in the city ever since, working in its restaurants and its lyric opera, introducing us to its science museum, its art, its aquarium and its culture, both laid back and lively.
I confess: Baltimore is too steamy for my tastes in mid-summer, when temperatures on the worst muggy mornings can start in the mid- to high-80s. Otherwise I might consider living there. But visit any other season and you’re in for a treat.
Last week I visit Betsy and her son Dylan (he’s 8 and one heck of a baseball player) in Upper Fell’s Point, where she lives. One morning I walked with them to Dylan’s much-recognized neighborhood elementary school, then ambled 8 miles, there and back, first over the cobblestone streets of Fell’s Point, with its little shops, cafes, bars, its history (the neighborhood was established in 1763), and its waterfront, and then past massive harbor construction projects to Barnes & Noble, situated in a multi-storied historic building that was once a city power plant.
It was a sparkling day, mid-70s and sunny. And it seemed as if no one hurries in Baltimore. (The hottest transportation mode is electric scooters, which can be picked up and dropped off anywhere.) I slowed down, too, sitting outside with a book for lunch at a bakery on the water, occasionally pausing to listen to the easy-going negotiations at the next table between representatives of a management company and a landlord, both younger guys in their 30s.
On this visit, I didn’t make it to Baltimore’s first-rate National Aquarium. But Dylan and did see the dinosaurs and Bay life exhibits at the family-friendly Maryland Science Center. where we also experimented with electrical circuits, building paper airplanes, and designing ramps down which we launched ping-pong balls. The next day, we took the water taxi to the Inner Harbor and walked five blocks to Camden Yards, where the lowly Orioles trounced the Red Sox to Dylan’s delight. That after playing football and soccer in the sprawling Patterson Park, looking out over a sizable expanse of the city.
One added treat of any visit to Baltimore is that this is the last affordable place on the East Coast. Our tickets to the ballgame, for example, cost $35 each for seats directly behind home plate, right above the press box. I’d be lucky to scalp a bleacher seat for that price at Fenway Park in Boston. I took the light rail from the airport to the stadium, about a 20-minute for which I paid 80 cents with my senior discount. I took Betsy and Dylan to a great neighborhood bar-restaurant, Ale Mary’s, blocks from their house and the three of us ate dinner, with onion soup, a main course and a glass of wine (OK, Dylan had just pizza and a soft drink) for less than $75, tip included. (Try doing that in D.C., New York or Boston.) And during off season, Kathy and I regularly have found hotel deals at 4-star hotels along the waterfront in the heart of the city for about $120 a night.
But it’s not the price alone that should draw you to this informal, friendly and lively town. The people are characters and, contrary to the gloomy news reports, they are happy to be here. Along my waterfront walk I stopped into a small boutique in search of earrings for Kathy’s upcoming birthday.
“How are things going?” I asked the owner.
“I couldn’t be better,” she said. “It’s a beautiful day and I live in Baltimore.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly identified the Orioles home stadium. It is Camden Yards.