In a not so distant past, Baltimore was a demoralized city. The Colts had left in the dead of night, sending ripples of anger and shame throughout this blue-collar, seaside town, homicides were a daily occurrence and residents were flocking to the surrounding suburbs. Truth be told, the city had an inferiority complex, not uncommon to metropolitan areas in the shadow of a big brother and Baltimoreans reside in the backyard of the biggest one of all, the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.
So it came as a surprise to everyone when a resurrection of sorts took place in the early 1980s. Baltimore re-entered society in a grand way as a place, a destination, instead of a pit stop to D.C. Urban renewal painted the city with strokes of optimism and success and the constant cha-ching of cash registers overflowing in tourist trade. Waterfront shops turned a working harbor into an aesthetically pleasing bustle of attractions. Baltimore became Charm City, a thriving vacation spot and convention town full of hotspots, new clubs and nightlife.
There's been a momentum in the city the last couple of years, to clean it up from the "City That Bleeds" (nickname given by former Baltimore Sun reporter and successful mystery writer Laura Lippman's books, and a spin-off of the city's former motto, "The City That Reads") to a place of pride (or at least less bleeding). It certainly helped that there was a new winning team in town.
For 20 years we had Cal Ripken, Jr., the Ironman of Major League Baseball's Orioles, before he retired last season. He was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak field. The O's may not have had stellar seasons in awhile (the last was losing the playoffs to the hated New York Yankees), but they do have a loyal following who make the stands at the groundbreaking Camden Yards swell with support during the season.
With the importation of the Cleveland Browns team, the city had a reason to put the Colts behind them. Edgar Allan Poe's memory inspired the naming of the Ravens, who gave the city plenty of reasons to celebrate last year with a Super Bowl triumph that painted the city purple for months. Their victory came just as Mayor Martin O'Malley, a handsome hunk of a politician who leads an Irish jig band on the side, was settling in to his new role, and it seemed like Baltimore was back. But again, that's just looking at the surface. Don't think the Cinderella transformation was complete; there's still plenty of crime, inequity and corruption. But as a tourist-friendly city, it's coming up daisies.
Since we're starting downtown, it's good to acquaint yourself with what's available in the local vicinity. One thing that's scarce is parking. Lots near the harbor fill up fast and street parking is a 24-hour rip-off, but what are you gonna do? Be prepared to spend some time dealing with that. Then cross the street and descend upon the Inner Harbor, which teems with people almost all the time. It is U-shaped, with the Maryland Science Center at one tip and the Power Plant on the other side. It's not a bad walk from one end to the other, but you can also grab a water taxi if you've got sea legs. In between, stop by the Harbor Place pavilions filled with commerce and food. Then ask for permission to board several war-era ships that give the place its nautical bearings, including a Clipper tall ship replica. The National Aquarium lets patrons marvel at giant grouper and sharks. Finally, go to the Power Plant building, where you and the kids can get your ya-ya's playing interactive video games at the first ESPN Zone, or take a book break at Barnes & Noble, or eat over-priced snacks at the Hard Rock Café. Speaking of food, the food courts over at the Pavilions do have some Balto staples: funnel cake hot to the touch drenched with powdered sugar, Old Bay-steamed crabs over at Phillips (but Bo Brooks over in Canton would be a better buy) and crab cakes.
Cross Pratt Street from the ESPN Zone and walk up the block to the recently opened Power Plant Live!, Balto's answer to Bourbon Street. Here, folks can walk out with drinks in hand in a large brick courtyard. They can eat Caribbean delights at Babalu Grill and samba the night away (as in Lucy, you got a lot of 'splaining to do), laugh their guts out at the Improv (crowds packed as close as sardines) and Howl at the Moon, where two to four guys work the pianos, guitar and drums for audience requests ($20 seems to be the minimum to make them play, or stop playing). A raucously good time can be had by all. But don't stray too far the city's two-block red-light district is a stone's throw away.
This area of town is heavily full of non-city-folk, where the equivalent of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd from the many suburbs surrounding the city hang out after work and on the weekends. It's a homogenous group of khaki and jean-clad, clean-cut types, guys and girls: the cookie-cutter walking mannequins of Banana Republic, Gap and Express showrooms. It's definitely not the funkiest scene going on in town, but it can be a good time, as long as you put blinders on.
To the east of the harbor, the college crowd invades Fells Point like a swarm of migrating locusts. Unless you want your ass pinched and/or like belches to ring in your ear, I suggest you keep your distance. So much of Baltimore's quirky character is sublimated under layers of dried-up booze, it may be hard to appreciate the rowhouses that are a staple of the city's architecture. Walk over to Little Italy and take in a quiet stroll and then you may be able to soak in a little bit more of the flavor.
Venture onto Aliceanna St. and you will find a handful of boho coffee and veggie hangouts The Blue Moon Café is a favorite a welcome detox to the frat boy attitude off the wharf. Travel east on Fleet St. past Fells Point, and curve right on Boston, and Canton pops up, an up-and-coming neighborhood filled with NYC-style bars, typical pubs and dance clubs and some exceptional dining (Atlantic and Bo Brooks). Canton Square is a nice collection of shops and bars; amongst them, Helen's offers the most for the wine connoisseur. It's places like this that draw young professionals to the city, to live out their emancipation from the suburbs. If any of them had ever tried living in a bigger metropolitan area like New York, they would see that Baltimore doesn't have the amenities to make it stick. And you have to drive everywhere. What's that about?
All of this though, doesn't feel like the real Baltimore. You have to go up Charles St., into the heart of the city, into neighborhoods like Victorian-regal Bolton Hill or brownstone-heavy Mount Vernon to start getting a feel for the tough yet soft underbelly of this gruffly proud city.
It's in these parts that the distinctly freaky vibes of the city come to the fore. Think Barry Levinson and Diner, Avalon and Liberty Heights, his Baltimore stories of growing up in the 50s and 60s amidst the racial and religious tension of the times. You'll see old school diners like the Sip-n-Bite, a greasy spoon that nonetheless knows how to brew a decent cup of coffee. You'll also see the regal homes in the northern part of the city, tree-lined blocks filled with the elite members of society, amongst them Pulitzer Prize-winning local author Anne Tyler. The area around Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Museum of Art suggests a gentility left over from Maryland's southern sympathies.
Go past these stately manors to the thrift stores of Hampden, a favorite hangout for college kids just discovering retro, and grab home cooking at the Hon Café or the Paper Moon Diner on the edge of Charles Village, a 24-hour joint with a robust menu and hipster clientele.
This is where the John Waters (hometown bizarro Baltimore boy) feel to the city picks up. His appreciation of the offbeat Baltimore Pecker, Serial Mom gives you a notion of why he put "Be Shocked! in Baltimore" on bumper stickers promoting his last movie here, Cecil B. Demented. The city has character, and lots of characters. You can walk about a foot before you hear someone call ya "hon." That's the friendly Waters aspect of the city, the way you're taken in, slapped a good one on yer back, and given some brewsky and crabs to go down with it. You could very well picture Waters having a blast in a place like Harry's All American Bar in Canton, a hole in the wall with Formica tables, older-than-dirt regulars and quarter beers. And Charles Street around Madison is the unofficial gay district of the city, thriving with bars and dance clubs like after-hours Paradox that revel in the openness of being out and about. But like most of the city, this scene too is black and white, not much more diversity than that in these parts.
On the streets, the rough-and-tumble side of this Brooklyn-esque city is teeth-grindingly pressed home. It's a daily ritual for commuters to deal with potholes and broken beer bottles, and play "pin-ball pedestrians" with all the people who dart in front of cars at the last minute.
It's Waters' influence that has the art student cohort at MICA crowding into Charles St. institutions like the Ruby Lounge (order Hot & Dirtys here Absolut Peppar and olive juice, extra olives; or if you're feeling frisky, Hot & Filthy), the Owl Bar and Brewer's Art (order the in-house microbrew fave, Resurrection, and find religion within its hops).
In the heart of the city, the reporters and editors who keep a pulse on it flock to the Midtown Yacht Club, a laughable misnomer considering it's a land-locked joint with peanuts in a barrel, cracked on the table and swept onto the floor. It also houses Thursday karaoke night, where ringers from the Peabody Conservatory embarrass the hell out of everyone else there (except the girl who always shows up to do the Metallica covers. I don't think there's anything that can throw her off her game). The Brass Elephant bar a couple of blocks away is also a favorite with byline biddies.
Some of them probably covered the annual Baltimore Film Festival at the Charles Theater, where several Waters films have been screened. Attached to the swank Tapas Teatro and across the street from Club Charles (a prohibition era art deco bar that's gone through several reincarnations) and the Zodiac restaurant (veggie friendly), the theater does brisk business bringing culture to those who appreciate it. If Harry Potter ever leaves the bigger one-screen Senator Theater on York Road, folks might find a reason to venture beyond this small stretch of space. Around the Senator, friendly dives like Gators and Egyptian Pizza give the hometown comfort food at equally comfy prices.
Stop by on your way down to D.C., or up to New York, and this city'll treat ya right too, hon.