Two weeks in
Flowers for Baltimore
Baltimore is about 62% black, way ahead of D.C., which has been getting whiter of late. Maybe Baltimore is too, but not so’s you’d notice. The crowd at the AFRAM Festival up in Druid Hill Park last weekend was closer to 95% black. Along with the usual carnival feeders there were many booths with names like Pass The Bundt, Get Da Scoop, and Phat Playtz, and vendors of shirts bearing legends like DOPE BLACK DAD; there were Black Israelites but they were not, as I had seen back in New York, yelling at white people, but greeting passers-by more fraternally, one might say, with good feeling all around. (A few of them had fezes, including a skinny teenage guy in a white t-shirt and black pants, which I found charming.) Everyone was digging the dance music programmed for the afternoon (this was part of a celebration of “Baltimore Club Music,” a phenomenon unknown to me; the closing act on Sunday night was the Isley Brothers) and a lot of folks were dancing spontaneously, including security guards and a middle-aged woman of size, who appeared unaccompanied, in a tight lime green dress and holding a parasol. (Some wonderful photos and coverage at the estimable Baltimore Banner, here.)
The people are nice. At least they have been nice to me so far, and you know me, I’m no goddamn ray of sunshine. A guy walking on President Street with his family approached me as “brother”; I can’t remember the last time that happened. He wanted to know where the Harbor was. We looked it up on my iPhone. His young son demurred. “Man,” he told the boy, “you’re disagreeing with me, the signs, the brother, and the GPS.”
There is all kind of great architecture, statuary, and public edifices here, and in many cases they’re not even sand-blasted or steam cleaned, like the Madison Avenue gate to Druid Hill Park (THOs SWANN MAYOR, read the big clunky 19-Century letters on the unscrubbed sandstone, INAUGURATED 1860.) There’s a totally wild monument to Francis Scott Key just down the street, with a literally gilt Columbia holding a flag on a plinth regarded by the composer in a rowboat in what would be a fountain if the city had money to run it. No one is ever there when I walk by. Madison Avenue at that end, by the way, has a couple of switchbacks to divert cars down side-streets, though pedestrians and cyclists can easily pass through — I guess it’s an old-time traffic calming measure — and they each come with an urn planter full of flowers. Damnedest thing.
It seems everyone who moves to a new city is told the blight is intermittent, and this is as true here as anywhere but seems more so to me because for one thing I just got here and for another it reminds me, in a cracked-mirror way, of the old days back home when neighborhoods that later got fab were transitionally just some cool spots between long stretches of sketch. (A girlfriend walked to meet me in Gowanus years ago and was trailed through the then-wasteland by two guys in a car who wouldn’t take her word that she wasn’t a prostitute.)
But while I’m familiar with the phenomenon of turning a urine-scented corner and finding a clutch of outdoor cafes, it’s a little weird when you don’t know when the bad part will end – and there is a lot of bad part. In the New York of my youth, outside the South Bronx there just wasn’t so much blight in one place, and it seemed the second anyplace became somewhere you wanted to be, money elbowed past you to get there first and set up a ticket booth. (There’s that New York glamor element I mentioned the other day.) There are long stretches of Baltimore where that cavalry is nowhere in sight, and left to utter ruin. To notice this the first few times kind of kills the spirit of the treasure hunt.
Kia told me today, though, about one such neighborhood she’d been through where, in the small front allotment of a building on a street with no trees or grass dividers, someone had put out a couple of Adirondack chairs and set them around a big tire planter they had filled with fresh flowers. There seems to be a theme. A spirit, too.