Archive for March, 2011

Baltimore; 2/19 – 20, 2011

Posted: March 17, 2011 in Maryland trips

The Wire.  Homicide: Life in the Streets. Biking through Baltimore, a two day adventure.

February 19 – 20, 2011

Baltimore is famous for its row houses.   My dad used to tell me about them, about the red brick houses with white stone steps.   I do love the houses, I love the urban scene.  Mixed among all the houses are people.  This trip more about those people, about my  hang ups with white versus black.

I started the ride in the suburbs of far western Baltimore. Because of the strong westerly wind that day, I was determined to ride that day from west to east.   The far west suburbs seemed like typical suburbs.  There were large office parks and strip shopping centers.  If you looked for social cues, however, you could see that something was different.   There were different kinds of stores; things were not as aggressively upscale.  When you looked at people in the cars, and later in a McDonalds, I realized that this was something different.   There were almost no white people here.   This was all black.   I was going to ride on a nicely built bike path through the woods of Gwynn River Falls fifteen miles to downtown Baltimore, at the Inner Harbour.  Closer to downtown is West Baltimore, famous on the TV as the ghetto of all ghettos.  On an earlier trip, I had driven on a major highway through that side of Baltimore.  I was struck by the miles and miles of abandoned and semi-abandoned row houses.

So, here I was going by myself through the woods of Gwynn River Falls on the West Side of Baltimore.   The trail runs along a river in an almost canyon or ravine, with the city (ghetto) up above on  a cliff.   The ravine is surprisingly wild, steep slopes of woods with beautiiful trees, very much back to nature.  It was a paved bike trail running through seeming wilderness in the city.   Fortunately, or unfortunately, there was no one around. On my trip, on a sunny unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, on a late winter day, I saw only one person on the first two thirds of the trail.   He was a slightly pudgy young man, walking down the trail,  eating something from a styrofoam container.     When the trail came into the city at one point and crossed a major street, I did see a bicycle rider, a homeless looking guy riding an old mountain bike.   So that was my comrade in bicycling.  Later that evening, at dinner in the more upscale neighborhood of Hampden, my bar companion had trouble believing that I had been in this part of town.  It just shows how much the locals know. Entering the city from Gwynne River Park, the bike trail goes all the way to downtown, skirting the ghettos of the West Side.  Why would  someone like me ever go here, on such anice trail?  The last part goes through post-industrial wreckage as it winds through old factories before it arrives to the Inner Harbor area.    So, while I was worried the whole time, I never had reason to feel threatened. I glided into downtown Baltimore.

Near the Inner Harbor are the now yuppie neighborhoods of Federal Hill and Locust Point.   Row houses from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century fill their streets.   They form plain, uniform facades.  These are not finely detailed brownstone type houses found in  parts of uptown Baltimore.  The whole block is frequently a single façade of brick, individual townhouses built as one wall.  The row houses are as narrow as twelve feet wide.  The houses look very much like they were built for dock workers.  If not for the window boxes of flowers, young upscale mothers with children, and nice restaurants, the neighborhood would have looked positively Dickensian.  Yet, these are clearly among the most desirable parts of Baltimore.   I stopped in a coffee house, full of young people using the internet.  I drank my coffee and thought about all this.   Looking at the map it became apparent.   These neighborhoods are within walking distance of downtown, yet are completely cut off geographically by the harbor from the rest of the city.    Locust Point really is a point of land.  So it stays safe, the poor black people cannot get in.  At the end of Locust Point there is a new development of brick row houses.   Baltimore is abandoning row houses in droves. In the safety of Locust Point, they are building new ones!

That evening five miles north, I had dinner in Hampden.  It is a small trendy wedge of a neighborhood, stuck between the Johns Hopkins campus and the freeway.  It has lower to middle class whites mixed with the young and the arty.   There are unpretentious hundred year old row houses, many of them wooden.   There are working class grocery stores mixed with trendy restaurants and galleries.   I kept envisioning Vic and Natlie would walk out any minute.   Going north from downtown, Hampden is near where the row houses stop and the bungalows and rich people’s houses begin.  I really dig Hampden as a neighborhood, but I have trouble reconciling that maybe is it so popular because it is so safely white.  Maybe I think too much; I had a good time talking Baltimore with the crowd at the bar, eating rockfish stuffed with Maryland crabmeat.

Sunday morning started colder; it did not break 35 degrees until about noon, and the wind continued, but slower than the day before.   I rode off from the hotel about 9:45, riding north.   I does not take much to realize that the rich and preppy of Baltimore all live north.   I remember the line from the Preppy Handbook  (“Baltimore is VERY preppy”).  I rode along Roland Avenue; lined for miles with majestic homes from the twenties through the forties.   This is where the upper class white people live and have lived.   This is where my Washington College classmates must have grown up.  I stumbled across Towson and Dumbarton High Schools, both places I had heard about many times in passing.   I saw the lacrosse bars The Crease and Mount Washington Tavern.  I ran into the prep school Gilman School; it looks like an English university.  Eventually, if you go far enough north, the row houses start AGAIN.   They clearly were built as late as the fifties or even sixties.  It is as if being so far north made you safe from the black people, so you could go back to living in row houses like you did before you fled the black people one or two generations before. I circled the Maryland Country Club golf course, gingerly.

Lunch was at Mount Washington, a town within the city that thankfully was at the bottom of a hill, not the top.   I knew I had left my car was further southwest, on the far west side of Baltimore, surrounded by black suburbs.   However, Mount Washington was quintisentially white and preppy.   As you started up the hill from Mount Washington neighborhood, it was all of a sudden a black neighborhood.   My muscles tightened.  I knew, or at least thought I knew, that this would be safe, that this was not the Hood.   This was too far from downtown. The neighborhood went on for miles and miles, neighborhoods of 1920 – 1950’s houses.    I guess I just have not been in a black world like that before.   It was all so normal, just no white people.

As I was riding along, trouble approached from behind.  I mean, what was I doing, riding alone, a white guy, through a black neighborhood?   Somebody was chasing me.   Chasing me on a bicycle.  Three dangerous black males were chasing me on bicycles.   They were yelling at me.   What was I to do?   I kept riding.   They kept catching up to me.  When they caught up to me at a stoplight they revealed themselves to be about 10 – 13 years old.  They referred to me, respectfully, as Mister.  They had never seen a bike with small wheels before.  They wanted to know where I got it.    They wanted to know all about it.  That was it.  It felt so internally embarrassed that I crossed the intersection against the light, and almost got run over.

So that was it.   I arrived back at the car a few miles later, parked in a strip shopping center.  It had been only about 29 hours.

January 15 – 17, 2011

Starting and ending point: Ft Lauderdale airport, arriving 11:00 AM Saturday, leaving 7:30 AM Monday

Itinerary:

Cab to hotel in downtown FLL.  Leave bike suitcase at hotel.

Ride Saturday to South Miami Beach.

Sunday ride South Beach / Downtown Miami / Coconut Grove / Miami airport.

Sunday 2:00 PM Commuter train to Pompano Beach.

Arrive Pompano Beach 3:00 PM, then ride back to hotel in FLL.

At 2:30 PM Saturday, ten miles south of downtown Fort Lauderdale, I stopped at this dive for a late lunch.  It was advertised as a seafood restaurant on the water, but was pretty run down, There were various crusty dudes sitting around the bar.   One fiftiesh guy with a South African accent was loudly cooking some boat deal on his cell phone. The slightly pudgy twenty something bartender had bra straps showing under her wife beater.  She had bruises on her arms.   When one guy questioned her about the bruises she boasted that she and her boyfriend liked to get rough.   Another regular sat next to me and drank shots by himself.   The South African guy made sure to ask the bartender for a hug before he left.  I sipped beer and got a chicken taco wrap.

The Fort Lauderdale airport had been absolutely jammed.   The cab driver had told me there were seven cruise ships leaving that day.   You could see the huge ships silhouetted against the sky like tall buildings.    The next day in Miami I saw several more huge ships.  They build them now like high rise hotels, with rows of balconies.

A1A turns into Collins Avenue when it crosses the Dade County line.     The 25 mile stretch from Hollywood to South Beach is an almost continuous stream of 20 – 30 story  high rise condos.   On most stretches there is a six to eight lane highway going in front of them.  Very few of the buildings have street life.  There are very few stores. Most of the high rises seem to use their lower levels for parking garages, along with their fountains and pretentious names. It looks like what I imagine Dubai is trying to become.  The buildings seem to have no people, but have cars racing in front of them.
The beach and the ocean are afterthoughts.    Who stays in these places?

I had assumed South Beach was going to be either a freak show or rich decadence. Actually, it was one of the few areas of South Florida that seemed like somewhere I might like to spend some time, like a weekend with Tootie.   The art deco buildings are amazing.    They go on and on.   The architecture is all of a whole, and there are very few vacant spots. The continuity of style really works.

Indicative of the multicultural experience that is South Beach was the bar scene at the place I stayed, the Blue Moon.   Our small crowd watched the playoff game between the Ravens and the Steelers.   Next to me was a blue collar looking probably straight white guy who turned out to be from New Orleans.  He had ordered an iced pail of six Budweisers, for himself.   He told me all about the current tailgating scene now going on at Saints games in New Orleans.  I wondered, what was he doing here in South Beach?  Maybe he was in town doing some kind of technical work on a business trip.   On the other side of me were two probably Mexican guys, not polished looking but clearly gay, drinking Mexican beer.   The very young bartender who looked and acted American was probably Cuban-American.  He knew all about pro football. He talked in perfect Spanish to the Mexican guys.   He said his other job was as a professional salsa dancer.  On the other side were two big African American guys.   In terms of demeanor and looks, they could have been black pro football commentators on ESPN.   There was black man and woman who turned out to be Brazilian.    Everybody was enjoying the game and talking to each other about it.  I cannot recall a time when I was with such a diverse group.

In South Beach you did not, however, see many “white” “American” families.  The few times I saw a family that looked “normal American” in South Beach, they turned out to be French or German.   Many or most of the people walking around seemed to be Hispanic.

I found my restaurant (Escopazzo) on Zagat on the internet.    It was small, in a non- trendy block with a Tattoo parlor, just off the art deco scene.   They greeted you almost too effusively.  Most of the staff were Italian.   I fantasize an Italian family who picked up their gig and moved  their restaurant to Miami Beach.   Nothing was pretentious, or fancy, but it is probably the most expensive restaurant I have even eaten at.  All the appetizers were at least eighteen dollars, and many of the entrees were over forty dollars.

I got just two things.  The first was a watercress salad with trumpet mushrooms  Just watercress and mushrooms; the whole salad about four or five inches across, half an inch thick, with a vinagrette.  The quality of all the ingredients was amazing.   You could taste and feel depth and quality of the emulsion of the olive oil and balsamic vinagrette in your mouth.  It was all delicious.    This is the essence of great Italian cooking; great ingredients, simply and artfully prepared.

The second course was a veal dish (one of the cheaper ones, only $32!) kind of browned, surrounded by lots of those same mushrooms.   I had never had a thick, tender piece of veal before.  Kind of like white steak.  Also delicious.

I sat by myself at the door, facing outward.   It was as if I was there to greet people as they walked in.  About ten o’clock, as I was about to leave, three unescorted young women who looked in their early twenties arrived, each wearing some kind of sweater or wrap. Right in front of me, they all stripped off their coverings, revealing each in an elegant black short cocktail dress. Who were these people; rich U of M students?

The others in that restaurant all looked less “diverse” than the rest of South Beach, but still not like any crowd you would see in Carrboro, or Winston-Salem.   Unlike Carrboro, people dress in South Beach dress up to go out.   Also unlike Carrboro, this restaurant at ten p.m. seemed to be just getting started.

The portions were not all that big, and I really could have eaten (before the veal) a $26 pasta course.   But I skipped the pasta and desert. The Italian guy gave me his card and wished me to come back. I do hope to come back some day.

Sunday morning I rode to Coconut Grove.  It is thirteen miles from South Beach to Coconut Grove across the Venetian Causeway, through downtown Miami. Back in 1983, Tootie and I used to bike this route from Coconut Grove, swim in Miami Beach, then ride back.  It is still a great bike ride.   Coconut Grove then was actually hip,  with what passed for a Miami version of artsy,  funky, unpolished.   Now it has a Ritz Carlton and a mall with a Victoria’s Secret.  And a Hooters.
The condo thing in downtown Miami has kind of gone off the charts.   This has to be the front lines of America’s real estate crash.  There are several buildings that seem fifty stories, clearly taller than anything in Miami Beach.  There is admittedly some street life in downtown Miami on a Sunday morning, but most it seemed to revolve around the electronics stores.  There were lots of poor and homeless people.   I mean, who do they expect is going to buy these expensive places?
The stretch of Brickell Avenue across the river from downtown towards Coconut Grove used to be somewhat vacant.   Now it is ANOTHER stretch of huge new high rises. Who lives here?   There are no stores here, no restaurants, nothing except fancy buildings.   For a brief moment thought I saw some life, some normalcy, when I saw a doctor’s office occupying a 1 – 2 story building.  Until I saw the Doctor’s name was in some unpronounceable Asian name, and it was a PLASTIC SURGEON.

In Coconut Grove,   I took a picture of our one bedroom duplex at 2620 Trapp Avenue.  It is still there, and the houses around it are not yet each walled off with a Mercedes behind a fence.  So there is a little soul still there.

After brunch in Coconut Grove, I rode north to the Miami airport.  The ride first goes through south Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, and then little Havana.  I remember Tootie and I used to ride bikes through this area at night to go to Baskin Robbins in South Miami.   This area really does have a jungle feel.  It is still a nice area.

Crossing Calle Ocho in Little Havana by accident I ran intoVersailles, the queen of tacky Cuban restaurants.   Back in the day, Tootie and I used to get stoned and go eat there.  The interior is full of mirrors, and it is great to just gaze at them all.

I took the commuter train with my bike from Miami airport to Pompano Beach, which is north of Fort Lauderdale.   Biking through poor rough neighborhoods in western Broward county there were endless rows of flat strip houses from the fifties and sixties.    I eventually got to the beach, and rode down through more and more high rise condos all the way to Fort Lauderdale beach.  For a large part of the way, I cut through the “Venice” part of Fort Lauderdale, with all the huge yachts tied up at pretentious houses on the canals.

Just before it got dark, I looped  through Ft Lauderdale beach. This was one of the first signs of actual life along the ocean, and was a welcome break from the deadness of high rise condos.  A stunning strip of bars fronted the ocean, occupied by thousands of drunk rednecks and more than a few bikers.(the Harley kind, not bicyclists)  If not for the distance by bike in the dark, I would have gone back there.

Ted