A Year in Charm City

Anyone can love a perfect place. Loving Baltimore takes some resilience

Laura Lipman

August 2018 in Baltimore City: humid and overcast. In Midtown, plastic bags sail through the air, catching on broken windows and corners of fences, coming to rest near crumpled bodies on uneven sidewalks. I can’t tell the difference between a dead body and a really good high.

Walking out of the air conditioned office is like stepping into a brick oven. The humid air throws me off-balance. That and the Malaria. I spent the last month recovering from Cerebral Malaria, a severe and life threatening neurological infection I contracted while working in Malawi.

When the fever hit, I was strapped to a gurney and loaded onto a small plane which carried me to a US hospital. I spent the next eight days in the ICU, followed by three weeks of relapse and recovery in Oregon.  During this time, my contract in Malawi ended and I accepted a position at our headquarters in Baltimore.

Now here I am,  standing on the corner of a great forgotten American city

September: I find a 3rd story walk-up eight blocks from my office. The majority of my stuff is still in my house in Malawi. The first week, I sleep on an air mattress on the floor of the vacant apartment. Beginning from scratch again, I say to myself. The sirens wail outside my window. In another foreign city.

October: The city is still hot, even in the evenings. Has the East Coast never heard of Fall?  I say to the tall man sitting across from me. It’s my first date with an Airman from Tennessee. He’s completely bald, with dimples and a mouth full of white chiclet teeth. He asks me-without a hint of sarcasm- “How do you feel about sweet tea?”  

We’re both new to Baltimore. We bond over the city’s eccentricities: Can you believe how much people love crabs and Old Bay? Did you know Baltimore is south of the Mason-Dixon line? Did you know the Orioles were the worst baseball team in the country last year? We drink $5 whiskeys in a basement saloon.  When he smiles, I swear, his face breaks open and light pours out. 

November:  The Washington Monument is a 178-foot phallic column that sits a block from my apartment. The monument has centrifugal force in the neighborhood-  surrounded by grass that extends a city block north, south, east and west, pulling people together. Residents walk dogs, read books, paint, knit, play music, panhandle, shoot up, sleep. Walking through the park one day, I sit down at a bench. A woman approaches me. She has one arm, a gold tooth, and a purple cropped wig that seems to have fallen from the sky and landed on her head. Her eyes are the giveaway- half open but lifeless

Darling give me some money. She purrs, in a bleak, fake English accent. I demur, and she saunters off, unbothered.

December: Winter snaps into focus: frozen sidewalks and manhole covers that belch steam into the streets. Helicopters buzz overhead. Sirens screech. The city is on track to have its highest murder rate in history. A church near my home hangs a purple ribbon on its windows for every person murdered. There’s a posted list of names and ages: Jamal Ross 28, Quayvon Johnson 24, Davon Davis 21, Corey Moseley 17, Taylor Hayes 7.

January 2019: Winter is relentless. The Airman and I pass the dark, dawning month of the year by watching documentary after documentary about Baltimore. Baltimore Rising, Charm City. Fleeing Baltimore. Baltimore: Anatomy of an American City. Baltimore is a historic and innovative city. It lays claim to the first newspaper, first public library, first Catholic Church, first Unitarian Church, first blood shed of the Civil War. Baltimoreans invented umbrellas, ouijas boards, the National Anthem, electric refrigerators, and six-packs of beer.

 It’s the most famous Baltimoreans that interest me the most: Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Babe Ruth, John Waters, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ira Glass, Ray Lewis, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin Durant, Michael Phelps and of course, the ever present Edgar Allen Poe.

 I’ve become a little obsessed with the city. Did you know..? I start my sentences. Did you know:

In the 19th century, almost as many immigrants arrived through Baltimore as Ellis Island?

Tupak Shakur and Jada Pinkett Smith met at the Baltimore School for the Arts?

The city was designed to hold a million people but now holds less than 600,000?

February 2019:  I’m eating Shepherd’s Pie with the Airman and his friend when we hear a pop-pop-pop outside the window. We look at each other- what that…?. We hear sirens and then, nothing.

Later, the owner of the corner liquor store will tell me, What choice did I have but to shoot him? He came in with a semi-automatic, trying to rob me. I was lucky I had my gun under the register. He pauses, rubs his jawline. But let me tell you– killing someone is nothing like the movies.”

March 2019:  Walking home from work, a woman runs up behind me and smacks me with a plastic bag full of trash. “Get away from me, you bohemian idiot!” she yells, panicked. Her eyes are wide and she’s panting, and as soon as she hits me she’s backing up, almost tripping over herself to get away from me. I don’t know what to do – I stand stock still on the sidewalk and start laughing. 

The next week I see her sitting on a stoop, bags of belongings heaped at her feet. Her vacant eyes sweep over me without a flicker of recognition.

April 2019: The magnolias bloom. Around the monument, the trees are heavy with their lustful blossoms.  It’s been 4 years since Freddie Grey was murdered in Police custody. A Famous Baltimore journalist comes to our organization to talk about the uprisings. “Baltimore is a powder keg,” he says. “This could happen again.”

Baltimore is two cities- the white L and the black butterfly. Professor Lawrence Brown uncovered how a century of racist policies have hyper segregated the city. Services in the city- from community benefits, to home loans, to available public transport, to access to food, is located down a thin strip in the middle of the city before turning to hug the harbor. This area has a much higher population of white residents: myself included. The area around the White L is the black butterfly- a community who systematically has had their neighborhood leeched of basic social services, bulldozed for highways, vacated by police. The average life span of someone who lives in the white L is twenty years longer than the rest of the city.

FIGURE 5-4 Maps illustrating Baltimore’s socioeconomic differences: (from left to right) the “Black butterfly” and the “White L” (referring to the shapes that the darker and lighter spots on the map create) overlaid by a map of the African-American population, an income map, and an unemployment map.
SOURCES: Baja presentation, March 13, 2017; Brown, 2016; adapted and reprinted with permission from Reuters; Reuters, 2015.

May 2019: I eat my first crab cake. I attend the “Kinetic Sculpture Race’ in Patterson Park. Human-powered sculptures charge down Charles St, float into the harbor, clamber through mud at the park. We clap and yell as a fifteen foot-high poodle careens down the path in front of hundreds of people who’ve lined up to cheer.

The city is taking gut punch after gut punch. Mayor Catherine Pugh resigns amid a scandal involving a book deal in exchange for city contracts. Then, hackers take over the cities computer systems for a $750,000 ransom. The number of homicides rockets past last years. The purple ribbons on the church begin to extend down the city block.

June 2019: The Farmer’s Market under I-83 is in full swing.  On Sundays our food desert transforms into a bustling center of organic, affordable food. We buy plump tomatoes and spindly green beans. 

The city is bustling with outdoor events. Every weekend is a new creative festival, lining the streets with arts, crafts, and food trucks.  When Anthony Bourdain visited Baltimore he pissed the whole city off by eating Pit Beef and Lake Trout, ignoring the soft shelled crab. He died twelve months ago and I still can’t bring myself to watch his shows.

July 2019: The same week Donald Trump calls Baltimore a rat-infested mess, I make up a song to the rodent carcass disintegrating outside of our new home. “Nightmare rat in the nightmare alley!” I sing to The Airman, as we walk to trivia. “Nightmare rat!”

You can’t shame this city. The Baltimore Sun publishes a defiant op-ed called, “Better to have a few rats than to be one.”  Signs spring up in shop windows: “We ❤ Baltimore.” “We’re Proud of Our City.” 

August 2019: I’ve lived here a year. “Charm City” it was nicknamed in 1975, by advertising executives trying to shift public attention away from the disintegrating inner harbor and the increasing violence. Charm City, with such a sense of self-awareness that people plaster bumper stickers on their car with slogans like, “Baltimore, actually I like it.” 

Do I love Baltimore? Sometimes. Does it scare me? Sometimes. Baltimore is a city that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and says:

Look around you. Can you love a place for exactly what it is?

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