I get several chances each year to drive to, through, and around Baltimore, Maryland, usually without spending more time there than it takes to watch an Orioles’ baseball game. But it’s always high on Carol’s and my “bucket list” for exploring, just for the atmosphere. Not its modern side that I’ll describe, but its stately architecture, creaky streets of dignified row houses, and monuments dating to the Revolutionary War of the mid-1700s.
Old and decaying, America’s 21st-largest city got a glorious face-lift between 1960 and 1980 when it redeveloped its grimy, nearly abandoned industrial waterfront. New and fine restaurants, hotels, and shops — plus the National Aquarium, a science center, and a maritime museum along what Baltimoreans call the “Inner Harbor” became world-class tourist magnets.
And despite an image problem as a rust-belt city with high inner-city crime, the place that natives call “Charm City” didn’t stop the renaissance there.
This old seaport, which was home to macabre poet Edgar Allen Poe and baseball legend Babe Ruth — and was once the nation’s second-leading point of immigration behind New York’s Ellis Island — has carved a reliable tourism niche. Its restaurant and club scene; tasty blue hard crabs; world-class museums, medical facilities, and symphony orchestra; and a historic stockade — Fort McHenry — that inspired America’s national anthem, entice millions of out-of-town visitors a year.
Exactly how many millions is hard to pin down. More than 10 million, for sure.
And the tourists aren’t all coming just for crabs and Natty Bohs and baseball at Oriole Park, completed in 1992, which became the prototype for nostalgic, but high-tech and comfortable, “retro” sports facilities.
Hold on, you’re saying. What in the world is a Natty Boh?
Ah, now you’re venturing into one of Baltimore’s many historic and current subtleties that give it that charm.
National Bohemian was a pilsner beer, first brewed in Baltimore in 1885. Along with the figure of a mustachioed gentleman that was its symbol, it became a local legend. The brewery changed hands during the industry’s many corporate takeovers in the mid-2000s and is now brewed as an inexpensive niche product in North Carolina. But it’s still sold in Bawlmer and sells briskly, mostly for old times’ sake.
Now you’re really confused. Bawlmer?
It’s where I was heading when I said that people don’t go to Baltimore just to crack crabs, drink beer, and tour the fort where Francis Scott Key reported, “Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner still wave” the morning after a British bombardment. Visitors go to the city on the Chesapeake Bay for memorable local color in its tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods and reflected in its somewhat nasal accent that many Baltimoreans themselves like to poke fun at.
They tend to leave the “T” — and sometimes a lot more letters — out of the city’s name.
Baltimore is “Bawlmer,” hon.
That’s hon, short for honey. For years, someone kept painting the extra word “Hon” on a huge expressway sign outside of town, making it read “Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!”
“It’s a term of endearment, a friendly way of saying, ‘Hi, hon, how you doin’?” So says someone who should know: Denise Whiting, the owner of the Café Hon, a meat loaf-and-mashed potatoes-style diner in an old former hardware-store building on 36th Street.
The name was inspired by that highway sign and by the typical Baltimore hon — a working girl, usually with a high beehive hairdo. Slightly overweight, she wears pants that are a touch too tight.
“I have ‘Baltimore’s Best Hon Contest,’ which is a gathering to honor and appreciate the working women of Baltimore,” Whiting told me. “We dress up with big hair and fun outfits — sometimes old party dresses or black spandex [elastic] pants. We just have a really good time.”
One year, the contest even had its own theme song: “It’s my party, and I’ll have crabs if I want to,” amending the words of a golden-oldie hit song by Leslie Gore.
But don’t think Denise Whiting and her associates at the Café Hon are simple folk. Whiting actually copyrighted the word “hon,” then had to apologize for creating the impression that she was trying to keep anyone and everyone else using it. Just other businesses, hon, she clarified.
In Baltimore, there’s a national museum devoted just to dentistry, which displays a pair of President George Washington’s dentures. Those famous false teeth were made not of wood, as many think, but from gold, ivory, lead and a bit of horse tooth. Another museum has nothing but incandescent light bulbs. (That one will be a really big curiosity one day if we’re all forced to use fluorescent and halogen lights.) There’s even a wax museum devoted to famous African Americans called “Blacks in Wax.”
Years ago, Baltimore promoted what it called “this fun, wacky, eclectic city” in an effort to get tourists to explore neighborhoods away from the harbor and to spend more time and money while they’re doing it.
The campaign had a theme: “Baltibaloo” — a rather contrived variation of the word “hullabaloo,” which I won’t even make you wait till my Wild Words to define. It means a lot of activity or an uproar.
The Baltibaloo guide directed people to places like the Paper Moon Diner, where ceramic cows, Barbie dolls, and undulating lava lamps from the 1960s are stuck to the walls.
All over town, some people make their entire living going around to people’s houses and painting their window screens, say with waterfall themes or lovely depictions of the Swiss Alps. “Window art” is a Bawlmer thing.
To further prove the point that art in this town isn’t stuffy, there are even human-powered, amphibious “kinetic sculpture races” around — and in — the harbor, for which people create bizarre contraptions.
Anything that will float, basically, from bathtubs with huge wings to a giant, rowable pig. Last year, one of the entrants was a 1,723-kilo (3,800-pound) platypus on wheels.
Competing for visitors with nearby Washington and Philadelphia — each city outspending it in tourist promotions — Baltimore long ago decided it had nothing to lose by promoting the “let your hair down” parts of town. Low art, in other words.
For instance, there’s the Hampden neighborhood — Baltimoreans leave out a letter of that name, too, and call it “Hamden.” It was built around mills that first made cotton duck for uniforms during the U.S. Civil War a century and a half ago. Today, Hampden is filled with eclectic shops like “Fat Elvis,” “Watermelon Sugar,” and “Mud and Metal,” as well as hole-in-the-wall restaurants like “Holy Frijole’s.”
At Mud and Metal, artists recycle everything from railroad spikes to oxygen tanks and make things like candelabra and gongs out of them.
Fat Elvis is a second-hand collectibles store with little if any Elvis Presley memorabilia. So why “Fat Elvis?” The owner won’t say. When I went there one day, the clerk wanted me to be sure to see the shelves full of ceramic poodles. “People collect the weirdest things,” she told me. “Elephants, vases shaped like heads.” I didn’t tell her about my collection of 1900 beer bottles. Too normal.
And coaxing visitors into blue-collar neighborhoods is nothing new. Film and television fans have been exploring Hampden, Fells Point, Federal Hill, and Little Italy for years. Four films by writer and director Barry Levinson, including “Diner” in 1982 and “Liberty Heights” in 1999, portrayed family life in ethnic Baltimore. And the critically acclaimed television series “Homicide,” also directed by Levinson and shot exclusively in Baltimore, ran for several years.
So did an even grittier show, “The Wire,” about the city’s criminal underbelly, a side to Baltimore that still haunts the city.
Riding the Amtrak train past the north side, you see what spawns it: whole neighborhoods of boarded-up, often burned-out row houses that had once been lovely and genteel. Frequently when per capita crime statistics are published, this city of 700,000 people reigns as “America’s Murder Capital,” with a homicide rate five or six times that of New York or Los Angeles.
Low achievement scores and crime problems in many of the city’s schools prompted both the state and the mayor to propose and even attempt takeovers, so far without success. Despite the almost heroic efforts of many teachers, parents, and volunteers to overcome the system’s many obstacles — budget deficits, disruptive students, overcrowded classrooms, too many apathetic parents — no grand solution to the schools’ endemic problems has been found.
So striking is the distinction between the city’s troubled schools, high crime rate, and distressed-neighborhood problem on one hand; and its lively, fun neighborhoods and tourism successes on the other, that more than one observer has borrowed from Charles Dickens to describe Baltimore’s story as a “Tale of Two Cities.”
Natty Boh used to promote itself as being “From the Land of Pleasant Living” when it was actually brewed there. The slogan wouldn’t fit every part of town any more.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Bucket list. A list of things people want to do before they die, or “kick the bucket.” The term — which is often broadened to refer to any list of deeds one wants to accomplish — gained popularity with the release of a 2007 movie by that name, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as terminally ill cancer patients.
Endemic. Something built into a place or thing. Malaria, for instance, has been endemic to many parts of the world.
Platypus. A truly odd, and odd-looking, Australian animal with a duck-like bill and beaver-like tail. But even more distinctively, it is the only mammal that lays eggs.