Baltimore; 2/19 – 20, 2011

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.

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