Archive for the ‘Maryland trips’ Category

About two years ago I read the 2007 book Deer Hunting with Jesus by columnist Joe Bageant.   Joe grew up poor white working class in Winchester, Virginia.   His book is about rediscovering Winchester after living elsewhere.   While Joe’s politics, at least on the economic front, are quite leftist, ten years ago he described how cultural cluelessness by liberal Democrats left his friends and family in Winchester nowhere to turn but to Republicans.   The book talked a lot about the pugilistic worldview of the Scots-Irish who have been in Winchester for over two hundred years.  Joe essentially predicted the arrival of Donald Trump.

Winchester (population 27,000) is the northernmost city in Virginia, about eighty miles northwest of Washington DC.   Winchester is at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley, which today might also be called the I-81 Corridor.   I had been intrigued because north from Winchester I-81 passes through four states (Virginia / West Virginia / Maryland / Pennsylvania) in less than sixty miles.   Because of its Mason-Dixon Line location, significant Civil War battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg, happened in this area.    I decided to drive up there, park the car, and bicycle around the area for three days.

Donald Trump is connected to this area in other ways.   During the recent campaign the national media was always looking to explain the attraction of this seemingly buffoonish candidate.  During last year’s presidential campaign, when the media wanted to interview Trump voters, they drove to the easiest part of Red America to get to from Washington DC; the northern I-81 Corridor.   I heard all sorts of interviews of folks in this area during the recent campaign.  And even though the election is over, Trump still campaigns here.  Last Sunday, the same day I crossed over by bicycle into Pennsylvania, President Trump was speaking to a rally of his “base” just seventy miles further up I-81, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

I was further influenced by books I have read about Virginia politics.   Winchester was the hometown of Harry Byrd Sr., a virulent racist who was obsessed with balance budgets.  He led the Byrd Organization, a political machine that ruled Virginia for forty years.  He had national influence as well.  From Wikipedia: Byrd served as Virginia’s governor from 1925 until 1929, then represented the Commonwealth as a United States Senator from 1933 until 1965. He came to lead the “conservative coalition” in the United States Senate, and opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, largely blocking most liberal legislation after 1937.   

To check it out I drove four and a half hours north from Chapel Hill and parked our Honda in the lot of a Walmart on the south side of Winchester.   I pulled the Surley bicycle out and pedaled off, heading north.   It was already two in the afternoon.   My destination for the evening was Hagerstown, Maryland, about forty-eight miles north.   I would have to cross the Panhandle of West Virginia to get there.

Winchester (founded around 1759) seems Southern in attitude but looks somewhat Northern architecturally.   Houses are close together in the older part of town.   There is nothing very hip about this place.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh yeah, the other famous person from Winchester is country singer Patsy Cline.   I go to pieces. Crazy.

 

I would have a chance to see more of Winchester two days later on my return.   Going north on the “old road” US-11 that parallels I-81, the three lane road was a reasonably safe cycle and had lots of fun things to look at.  The West Virginia state line is just ten miles north.

 

There are lot of public displays of patriotism around here.

 

 

Twenty-five miles north of Winchester is Martinsburg, WV, population 18,000.   It used to be a big B&O railroad town.   The population in 1930 was almost the same as it is now.

 

 

 

 

 

While the older parts of Martinsburg look gritty, it is “only” seventy-eight miles from Washington DC.   The DC sprawl seems to be creeping up here.  Martinsburg is the end of the line for MARC commuter trains that go all the way to Washington DC.  All along this bike ride I saw new housing going up, especially near Interstate Highway interchanges.

 

From Martinsburg it is was another twenty something miles up US-11 to Hagerstown, crossing the state line into Maryland about halfway there.

I am currently watching my son and a some of my friend’s offspring move to Durham NC; they all want the urban experience; live in a city where they can walk places.   But Durham does not really have many older dense residential areas like row houses.    If only it could all be transported to Hagerstown MD (population 40,000), where there are miles of older homes, probably available for a pittance.

 

 

 

 

I found a room for only sixty-eight dollars plus tax in a fairly nice 1980’s looking hotel, not actually downtown but within a short bike ride.   There are really only three decent looking restaurants downtown,  all on the same block.   One is a German place that has been there for years, with waitresses in fraulein outfits.   I ate instead two doors down at a place called 28 South where the food just OK, but the bartenders were friendly.

Next to my hotel in Hagerstown this piece of commercial modernism is essentially unused.  I am probably the only person who worries that this may be torn down soon.

 

The next day, for the first half of the day, I biked a big loop up into Pennsylvania.  The state line was about ten miles north.    Most people forget that the Mason-Dixon Line is mostly the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.   This auto auction was in Pennsylvania.

I did see a few Trump signs still around.  This guy built his own private monument; Trump must have answered his prayers.   Around the other side of his house, there was a No Trespassing sign saying:  Intruders Would Be Shot.

 

I bicycled through two pretty Pennsylvania towns, Greencastle and Waynesboro.    Compared to small North Carolina towns of similar size, these two towns seem so much more sturdily built,  probably because 100 years ago they were relatively more prosperous.

 

 

The countryside was beautiful.

 

 

I looped back to Hagerstown for a late brunch at a place next door to the restaurant I had eaten in the previous night.    Their version of eggs sardou.

 

Believe it or not, there really are liberals around here, because outside the restaurant an anti-global warming demonstration came marching down the principal street of Hagerstown

In walked outside to take pictures.

 

The other two guys at the bar were perfectly nice about it, but one shook his head and said that with all the problems so apparent in a town like this, global warming seemed a problem far away.

The majority of people I had seen in the past two days were white, overweight, and unhealthy looking.   Maybe it was a coincidence but the demonstrators looked healthier than the general public.

On that same vein, at that same restaurant was this special on the bar menu:

 

The rest of the afternoon was weaving through pleasant country roads towards my night’s destination of Shepherdstown, on the Potomac River that divides West Virginia and Maryland.  I passed by Antietam National Battlefield.   I had toured that battlefield by bicycle several years ago so this time I stopped only briefly.  22,000 Americans were slaughtered at Antietam on one day in 1862.  Unlike today, the military then was organized by groups that started in geographical locations, so one served with men from one’s home town.   Several hundred men from one particular Philadelphia neighborhood died together in about ten minutes.   The terrain here was steep small hills.

 

I spent this night in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, home of Shepherdstown University, a West Virginia state university.   All over America college towns just look more prosperous.  At this point on the trip I had bicycled through about fifteen small towns.   The downtowns of almost every one of those towns had looked commercially vacant, with poor looking people standing around.   Shepherdstown looked very different.   It had an elitist Main Street with gift shops and expensive restaurants.

 

Continuing to notice the red/blue divide, while the expensive restaurants looked a little stuffy, Blue Moon Cafe reminded me of Durham or Chapel Hill.   It was the first place I had visited in two days that had an obviously counterculture staff.   You could really feel the difference.   One review on Yelp viciously criticized Blue Moon for being full of “hippies.”    But it was relaxed and comfortable, at least for me.  I got their version of eggplant parmesan.

 

 

The next day I left early with about forty miles to get back to my car at the Walmart in Winchester.  For the first fourteen miles I cycled on the C&O Canal towpath, a beautiful trail that parallels the Potomac River.

 

I had been hoping to find somewhere to eat breakfast.   Even after I left the trail and climbed a big hill there was nowhere.  Finally about 10:00 AM  I stumbled on this place like the Holy Grail.

Since I am now over sixty, when I am on the road I start to feel camaraderie with other men of a similar or older age, regardless of their backgrounds or political beliefs.   Three old guys were sitting at a booth in the Mountain View Diner, loudly praising Trump but I could not get close enough to hear all the details of what they were saying.

After breakfast the scenery was again beautiful.

 

 

Back in Winchester I was able to see their downtown.   They have done an unusually good job of closing it off to traffic and making it a pedestrian mall.    At lunchtime on a Monday it had lots of people eating outside.

Back in the Walmart parking lot our car was still there.   I was home in Chapel Hill in time for dinner.

Everbody saw Baltimore all over the news in early May.   Rioting, looting, and general mayhem seemed to be everywhere.   Was Baltimore really in flames, or was this just a lot of media coverage about a serious problem, but only in a small part of the city?   Since Baltimore is my favorite close by big city, and I figured they needed the business, I drove up on a Saturday.

Assuming no major traffic tieups getting around Washington, you can get to the southern end of Baltimore in a little over five hours.  This time I chose to leave the car in a supermarket parking lot, near the suburb of Riviera Beach.    The south side of Baltimore has always been the less trendy side; the rich blue bloods mostly live on the north side.   Riviera Beach sounded exotic, but turned out to be the kind of working class white neighborhood where people drove pickup trucks and rode Harleys.   One assumes people moved here from inner city Baltimore in droves when these houses were built in the nineteen forties and fifties.  I ate lunch in the Burger King there.  There were lots of elderly people.

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Bicycling out of Riviera Beach, after passing other suburbs like Pasadena, I biked through several miles of decaying chemical plants, waste dumps, junkyards, and brownfields.    Looking over the industrial squalor, one can finally see the tall buildings of downtown off in the distance.   The city started suddenly; dense row houses appear immediately beside what looked like a refinery when I glided into the somewhat rough neighborhood of Curtis Bay; which I think is inside the city limits.   This ILA bar could have come from a scene from The Wire.

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Bicycling into Baltimore proper from the south is a little tricky; you have to cross several bridges before plunging into the narrow streets of row houses in yuppified Federal Hill.   All of a sudden it is hipster central.

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Like New Orleans and shotgun houses, Baltimore built itself with an urban self confidence of its own architectural style.   While not as beautiful as New Orleans, and maybe not beautiful at all, streets of row houses in Baltimore show a singular style as they repeat themselves across neighborhoods of all social classes.  Neighborhoods like this stretch for many miles.

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I stopped at Porter’s in Federal Hill for a beer, and looked up places to stay on my cellphone.  As expected, prices were really low; like $ 89.00 for a four star hotel.  I checked in, then biked off to look at more of the city.    On a beautiful late spring day, everything at least looked normal; crowds of people around Inner Harbor.

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That afternoon, and the next day, I bicycled around many parts of Baltimore.  I knew I could not go everywhere.  Like just about every city in America, there are many parts of Baltimore that would be dangerous for someone like me to visit on a bicycle.   I had to keep my cycling to those gentrified parts of town where I felt safe.  Unlike Chapel Hill, it was encouraging to see a large percentage of apparently middle and upper class African Americans, doing everything everyone else was doing, including having a drink on a sidewalk cafe Saturday afternoon, or doing brunch on Sunday morning.    In comparison, Chapel Hill publicly shows much less of the diversity we would like to pride ourselves on.

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That evening, at a small Italian restaurant near my hotel, I was only one of two parties eating that night.   One of two elderly ladies eating near me complained that the “national media” had ruined Baltimore’s reputation.   She said that she had lived in the same area her whole life, including during the 1968 riots.  She said those 1968 riots were essentially all over the city, while the current the current riots were only in a 1 – 2 block area;  a part of town that few other residents visit.  Everybody I talked to bitched about the recent 10:00 PM curfew, which was, thankfully, over.  I took this to heart, because I know every city in America has some neighborhood that outsiders are scared to visit.    This is a huge problem, and maybe Baltimore’s riots will inspire the nation to action.   But Baltimore’s hotels and restaurants, far from where the rioting happened, should not have to bear this burden on their own.

Baltimore has several handsome areas that are fun to visit.  On Sunday morning, I bicycled through office buildings and row houses for over six miles to the neighborhood of Hampden, near Johns Hopkins University.   Compared to the restaurant the night before, this was even more hipster.   By the time I left the place at about ten thirty in the morning, there were people waiting on the sidewalk for a table.

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I bicycled all over several other parts of the city, including Bolton Hill, which I had never visited before, and which was gracious looking and almost too well preserved and wealthy looking.  I also realized that this area is a mere few blocks from where the rioting occurred in Sandtown.

Eventually I worked my way south towards downtown, then across some bridges, for the ride back towards the car parked in a supermarket lot near Riviera Beach.

Let me get a couple of things off my chest. First; I now am stopping at red lights. I have been doing this for about a month. I know, I know, some of you may be shocked. But bicycling in cities has become more established, and to get the respect of motorists, we do have to start obeying at least some of the rules. I do draw the line at stop signs; anyone who expects bicyclists to come to a complete stop at every stop sign obviously has never ridden a bicycle. Whoever designs many of the bicycle paths is also frequently clueless.    The idea of signs telling bicyclists that they should dismount and walk their bicycle at intersections is ridiculous.   The very pleasant Mount Vernon trail south of Washington DC is full of these dismount signs. On a crowded Labor Day I saw no one comply with this request, ever.  Which is as it should be.

But the stopping at red light thing comes with a cost, brought on by urban bicycling’s increased popularity.   I feel like what artists who lived in Manhattan in the seventies must have felt about gentrification. Having to sit at red lights takes some of the freedom out of bicycling, and adds a level of stress. Because it is no longer the Wild West, while sitting at a red light in the sun,  we start to feel a twinge of normalcy that is certainly annoying.

Which brings me to public transit. Near the end of my journey, on Labor Day with my bicycle, I took the Washington Metro from just west of Rockville, Maryland to just south of Alexandria, Virginia; a distance of about thirty miles. It took almost two hours. And it was fine; the Washington Metro is an excellent subway system. It got me out of the heat, and bridged a gap that helped me finish the return bike ride in just one day. But if I had to do the transit thing every day, I would probably go nuts. It would not take me much more than two hours to do the thirty miles on a bicycle, and the difference between levels of stress would be dramatic. On a bicycle you are still free.  Isn’t that the American way?

The ride in question here seemed somewhat ridiculous; ride across much of the Washington DC metro area, including suburbs, in the summer heat; all the way to Frederick, Maryland.  And back (aided by transit!).
The first day was the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend.   I left late from Chapel Hill because Dan had come over to sing songs with me in the Greenbridge stairwell.   Leaving Chapel Hill just before lunch, I arrived in Northern Virginia later in the afternoon.   I parked the car in a grocery store parking lot on highway US 1, in a “mixed income” neighborhood just south of  Mount Vernon, Virginia.  I biked off into the heat, hoping against hope that this rental car would still be there forty eight hours later.

The Mount Vernon trail is indeed a nice way to go.   It is a scenic paved path along the Potomac River for about eighteen miles, from south of the Mount Vernon estate, through Old Town Alexandria, and across the river to downtown D.C.   As it passes by National Airport ( I refuse to use that Ronald R***** name) families gather by the bike path in a park by the river, watching the planes take off and land.

Gravelly Point Park, Alexandria VA

Gravelly Point Park, Alexandria VA

 

Sometime between six and seven I pulled up to a random bar of an expensive hotel near the Washington Monument, and ordered an IPA.   While drinking, I looked at low cost hotels dot com on my phone.  Washington hotels do seems really cheap on the weekends.   The hotel I found was only about ten minutes away by bike, near the Convention Center.

After showering and changing clothes, I ate at the bar of Zaytinya, on Ninth street.  Dinner that night cost a good percentage of the price of the hotel room, but was really delicious.   The restaurant has Turkish slash Greek slash Lebanese food, run by a locally famous restauranteur who comes from Spain.  The dishes are small and called Mezze (not, interestingly, Tapas.)  I had stuffed eggplant, grilled octopus, and these little lentil pancakes, accompanied by Greek white wine.  I started talking to some people at the bar, one of whom lived in Carrboro.

The next morning,  Sunday,  the streets of Washington were quiet, and the humidity was already intense.  Luckily much of the day was cloudy, which did cut the heat a bit.  I really enjoyed biking through the streets of Northwest Washington, seeing the embassies and the National Cathedral.   Adams Morgan in Northwest Washington , which had previously been a near slum,  is now a hipster area.

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Shortly after that, I got on the Capital Crescent Trail; a former railroad line that runs all the way to the suburb of Bethesda.

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Capital Crescent Trail

The Washington area is growing like gangbusters.   Suburban sprawl is inevitable.  Maryland suburbs have been somewhat the national model on their efforts to encourage density around mass transit (subway) stops, and to preserve open space and farmland.   Downtown Bethesda looks like a really big city, in some ways more urban feeling even than downtown D.C.      It and the other Maryland suburbs are not all that nice, or somewhere I would prefer to live, but at least they are making an effort to establish some kind of valid urbanism.

From downtown Bethesda, there is another “rail to trail” that goes about ten miles towards Rockville.   For the last few miles I ended up cycling down Rockville Pike, a huge six lane highway lined with strip malls and car dealers.   On this road, and most of the other Maryland divided highways I saw, while not exactly pleasant, there was always a sidewalk or bike path, and I never felt in actual danger.

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Scenic bike path on Rockville Pike

 

Modernist Church, Rockville MD

Modernist Church, Rockville MD

 

My day’s destination of Frederick, Maryland was over fifty miles from downtown D.C.   I made a game of seeing how far out from D.C. the suburbs continued.  They definitely go as far as Clarksburg, which is thirty-something miles to downtown.

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After Clarksburg, the area becomes suddenly rural, and it is really quite beautiful for ten or fifteen miles.   The main highway paralleling the interstate turns into an almost peaceful two lane road.

MD route 355, S

MD route 355, south of Frederick

 

Seven miles before Frederick, you suddenly enter what Tom Constantine calls a faux-ville, the Villages of Urbana.    My brother Alex’s first book was partly about this New Urbanism, criticizing  these developments as faux-urbanism; housing developments claiming to be actual towns.   This one was at least tastefully done.   It had the state highway go right through the middle of it, with townhouses brought right to the highway.

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Urbana, MD

In contrast to North Carolina, where there would have been continuous sprawl, west of Urbana the land becomes immediately rural again, all the way to within a couple of miles of downtown Frederick, where the strip malls begin.   Just as I entered this strip mall zone on the outskirts of Frederick, it started to thunderstorm.  With perfect timing, I ducked into the bar of an Uno Pizzeria which swam in the huge parking lot of a Home Depot.   It gave me a place to drink beer,  wait out the storm, and find a place to sleep in Frederick.

I would not call Frederick a trendy place, but it is a beautiful historic town with a lot of nice restaurants.    I went cheaper this night, and ate at an old school Italian place, where opera plays in the background, and the side salad is made with iceberg lettuce.

Frederick MD

Frederick MD

 

 

Eighteenth Century Houses, Frederick MD

Eighteenth century houses, Frederick MD

 

The next day I biked about thirty miles back towards Rockville, where I caught the Metro through downtown DC to Northern Virginia.   I then bicycled the ten or fifteen miles back to the car I had left in the grocery store parking lot.    It was still there.

 

 

 

Federal Hill, Baltimore

Federal Hill, Baltimore

I love Baltimore.  I cannot stop myself from going back .  While it is certainly not New Orleans, it has some of the quirky city flavor of that more southern city, and it is a whole lot closer to where I live.  On an unusually cool Sunday in July, I biked the forty- five miles from downtown Washington D.C. to Baltimore, leaving Washington at  lunchtime on my new Surly Long Haul Trucker.    Late that afternoon, I glided into the neighborhood of Federal Hill.  I quickly found a bar. Baltimore is a great sports town, and everyone was cheering the Orioles game against Oakland. I had a Smithwick’s Ale for six dollars, although everyone else seemed to be drinking Miller Lite.

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I had left downtown Chapel Hill at seven that morning with a Starbucks decaf and an oatmeal.   I had not yet decided on a destination.  Heading north on I-85 in the Honda with my bike  in the trunk,  I decided to drive to downtown D.C., but where to go from there? I have ridden through much of D.C. many times.  However,  I have never cycled north of the prosperous Embassy Row area, heading into Chevy Chase and Bethesda. Most addresses we read in D.C. say something Northwest, as in 1580 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.  But looking at the map, unless I cycled all the the way to Frederick, Maryland, I did not see any great destination to spend the night.    Not that I have ever been there, but who really wants to spend the night in a chain hotel on the highway in Gaithersburg?

So I chose to bicycle another direction,  through the part of  Washington that I have also rarely visited,  heading northeast. I parked the car in the Washington Union Station garage, put the wheels on the bike, and headed out Rhode Island Avenue N.E.   Traffic was relatively light on a Sunday afternoon.   The destination was Baltimore, forty five miles away.

Once I left Union Station, for the next ten or fifteen miles, I hardly ever saw a Caucasian face.   While there are some dicey areas just a few blocks north of the Station, with crowds hanging around liquor stores, things mostly looked pretty conventional,  just no white people. Crossing the Maryland line, the city transitioned into suburbia, but the color line remained. Older suburbs transitioned into tract mini-mansions, but still mostly black. I passed a picnic given by a fire department.

 

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On a trail that passed through a public park, I saw two men’s adult softball games. The four teams all had uniforms, clearly in some kind of league. I had not remembered African Americans being passionate about baseball. Getting closer, I realized they were all speaking Spanish.  These guys must be Dominican or something. But still all black!

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Suburban neighborhoods looked very conventional.

 

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I finally have Google Maps for bicycle operating correctly on my I-Phone, and it plotted a route through both neighborhoods,  parks,  and industrial areas, on bike paths, residential streets, and country roads.

Suburban sprawl is not equidistant and uniform.  As in Greensboro, Raleigh, and many many other cities,  race effects sprawl.  Baltimore does not sprawl off much towards the south side or west sides, which are traditionally the poorer sides.   From the south, there are small farms with horses only seven or eight miles from dense row housing of Baltimore.  Just before the city starts, there is a squeezed tangle of waterways and freeways.  All of a sudden you are there, red brick row houses with white stone steps.

After my beer, I booked a room on my cell phone at a low cost hotel in Mount Vernon. This neighborhood was where the wealthy lived in the eighteen fifties, about a mile uphill from the touristy downtown area around the Inner Harbor. I had a good but overpriced Italian dinner in the same Mount Vernon area.

 

Mount Vernon, Baltimore

Mount Vernon, Baltimore

The next day, on a Monday morning, I rode a similar route back to Washington.    I did mess up once in south Baltimore where I found myself on some kind of freeway.   It was scary for a moment, but I diverted onto Old Annapolis Road.   I passed a crab shack, wishing it was lunchtime.

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I later passed by the University of Maryland in College Park, and biked into the Union Station parking garage about two that afternoon.    I was sweaty, but I got out of town to beat the rush hour traffic.    I had dinner that night at home in Chapel Hill.

 

Row houses, Baltimore

This was a weekday escape.   The prospect of an entire week at work was unacceptable.  So, I got up at 6:10 AM on Monday morning and drove with the bike up to Union Station in DC, put the car in the parking garage, and took off from there about noon.

DC to Baltimore by bike is at least fifty miles.  I punted on the return ride.  Monday I did cycle DC to Baltimore, where I spent the night.  The next morning I cycled around crabtown, and then took then commuter train back to DC.    I drove from DC back to Carrboro in time for dinner on Tuesday.

I had heard many years ago that people from Baltimore had an immense distaste for DC.   While I am sure that is still true, being close to DC is unquestionably good for the otherwise morbid Baltimore economy.    But these cities frequently look and feel like different planets.

Even compared to Penn Station in Manhattan, the crowd at DC’s Union Station, for a train station,  looks upscale.   It is not only that people are well dressed, but they are clearly dressed for WORK.   White collar work.   A majority of the crowd would pass as a lobbyist.   No one remotely looked like they were having a good time.  Clearly the Republicans have a point when they say that DC is the current place to make money.

We all know that any address “we” have ever been to in the District ends in the initials “NW”.    For this ride, I head off in the direction of “NE”.    I hardly saw any white people for the next ten miles or more.  Except for this racial issue, the ride along Rhode Island Avenue was uneventful.   I am sure there are serious slums in some parts of DC, but it did not look this way on this route. If you like urban cycling, this mostly was quite pleasant; the road was wide enough to keep from getting run over.

The road crosses the line into Maryland and the city continues for quite a while.    Eventually the cityscape peters out.    Clearly this is the side of town for unwanted stuff, because for the next few miles I passed a succession of car junkyards, garbage truck depots, and the Maryland State Women’s Prison.    I even (in Maryland!) passed a ranch house with a confederate flag out front, stenciled with the words REDNECK.

But slowly this evolves from DC suburbs to Baltimore suburbs, and you start to feel the Baltimore vibe.    This is an old city that is set in its ways.    Almost abruptly, you arrive into a dense city of red brick row houses.  I stayed near the Fell’s Point neighborhood, and had a nice evening eating healthy food at the bar a Greek restaurant.

What more can I say about Baltimore?   I did see the old National Brewery, which is now a condo complex calle (seriously) Natty Boh Towers, after National Bohemian beer.   A bar across the street had the same name.

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.