By William Dawson
The train rattles along the tracks as we hurtle towards our destination for the day. The scenery outside blurs together as our group of six sits quietly during a lull in the conversation. I get lost in my own thoughts as I stare out the window daydreaming. It amazes me how easily we are able to travel these days. Not so long ago, it would have taken much longer to travel from Owings Mills to Baltimore, MD, like we are doing today. Now, with the vast improvement of technology, we can hop on a train and be at our destination in about 20 minutes. Everything in today’s world is connected; exploration has never been simpler.
Reality drags me back to the here and now as Justin softly says something to his girlfriend, Atley, who giggles and discreetly directs his attention to a man mumbling in his sleep a few seats away.
“Public transportation never fails when it comes to people watching.” I chime in.
“Got that right. I mean check these two out.”
Justin nods towards two older women having an animated conversation at the front of the compartment. In between the wild hand gestures and the cackle of laughter, these women are having a conversation about only God knows what. Maybe they were speaking a different language but, if they were, it’s a language I had never heard before. We all agreed that it sounds more like gibberish than anything else.
The rest of our group, including Kerm, Chase, and his girlfriend Sam, are talking about the football games being played that weekend. The comments revolve heavily around whether or not the Giants can turn their season around and if RGIII’s knee will hold up for the rest of the season. Some solitary souls sit around us, enjoying their own company, but no other captivating being decided to ride the train that morning.
We exit the metro at the Charles Center stop, about two blocks from the Inner Harbor. The hustle and bustle of city life is all around us on that pleasant fall day; cars wiz by on the streets, horns blare, and people brush by us as they get on with their lives. “Charm City” instantly reminds you that you are only a very small part of this world.
All of us have been to Baltimore before, but since Kerm grew up here, we decided to make him our impromptu tour guide. He leads us down Charles Street towards the Convention Center and Inner Harbor. As it tends to do, my mind begins to wander in the direction of lunch, and I ask where everyone thinks we should eat.
“Oh, we’re definitely going to Lexington Market. I haven’t been there in years and everyone can find something they like.” Kerm, our own Sacagawea answers.
The majority of our group—everyone except for me that is—isn’t hungry yet so we decided to wander around the Inner Harbor for a time. We stepped onto the promenade that connects the revitalized areas of downtown Baltimore and begin to make our way towards the shops, restaurants, and attractions that line the waterfront. A cold breeze comes off the water as if to remind us that winter is fast approaching, but for now the sun is shining and spirits are high.
My group wants to visit the shops, but, as I was on a mission that day, I forgo this excursion. I was left to my own devices as I begin my search for some of the “hidden charms of an overlooked American gem, a city on the rise,” as Andrew McCarthy described this city in his book “The Longest Way Home.”
I meandered along the promenade, weaving my way in between the families and couples that were also out enjoying this beautiful day. My military, and more specifically naval interest, brought me to the U.S.S. Constellation. I had been here before but the sight of the ship accompanied by the knowledge that Fort McHenry is so close always brings forth the same emotions: pride and patriotism. I can’t help but think about the men who fought and died on this ship and at this Fort to protect our country. As I stood there listening to the creak of the mooring lines and the sails snapping in the afternoon breeze, I ask myself if I could make the same sacrifice, but the answer is much less concrete than the question.
Farther down the walkway sits the Baltimore World Trade Center, towering over its siblings. I remember, as a child, being awestruck by the sheer height of this building and basking in the brilliance of the view from the observation level. In my childhood ignorance I thought it impossible that anything could be taller.
Being back at that spot makes me reminisce about those times when my mother would bring me and my siblings up to see this sight. She always said that the view reminded her of New York City and of the time that her and my father spent growing up there. I have had a connection with this city for some time now, as my family would often take trips into Baltimore when I was young. Most often it was for some sporting event, be it Navy football games or some lacrosse game, but occasionally we would take trips downtown.
When we did, my parents were very concerned about us walking around the city without them. We would tailgate before Navy games with classmates of my father and then, always as a family, walk to M&T Bank Stadium; the children were forbidden to walk to and from the stadium without a parent accompanying them. In hindsight, I can say that Baltimore was a city my parents loved, but couldn’t fully trust. As children, my siblings and I didn’t understand what the concern was. We were used to growing up in safe neighborhoods where children could roam free in relative safety. The fact that the city could be a dangerous place where other people could harm us didn’t even register.
After World War II came to an end, the residents of Baltimore began to migrate into the surrounding suburban areas. With the rise of mechanized transportation, the people who had built Baltimore’s dominant industrial sector found it unnecessary to live in the packed city. These population shifts caused economic conditions to decline and crime rates to increase. In the late 1950s a redevelopment plan was created in order to save the city from its downward trend. It would take many years, but with the revival of the Inner Harbor, government officials believed they could revamp their city.
Today’s Baltimore has drastically changed since the Baltimore I remember from my childhood memories. Of course, there is still crime, and every city has its dangers, but my mother no longer gets nervous when we visit. She’ll always worry—as mothers usually do—but she has learned to trust the city. The improvements to the waterfront area were contagious. Growth seems to radiate from the Inner Harbor as the city improves each year.
Once again, I stood at the Observation Level and looked out over the city I have known for years and am stunned by the view it provides. You can see for miles as the city seems to unravel at your feet. The light glistens off the water of the harbor as boats cruise by and the people walking along the waterfront resemble ants scurrying about. This must be similar to God’s view is a thought that comes easily to mind.
My phone started going off in my pocket and, as I took it out, I see Chase’s name and a picture of him dressed as Hugh Hefner (his Halloween outfit from the year before) on my screen.
“Chase, what’s going on?”
“Dude, we are all starving. Where the hell are you?”
“At the top of the world,” I responded.
“What are you talking about?”
“Nevermind. I’ll start heading towards Lexington Market now. Just meet me there.”
As I made my way east along Pratt Street and turned onto Light Street, I noticed a man out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw that he had an easel set up and was painting. He was wearing a black, paint-smeared hoodie, a pair of beat up khaki pants, and Timberland boots. He has a tray of colors set up next to him as he paints the section of waterfront that he is standing in front of. I walked over and comment on his work. He politely thanked me and tells me his name is Bryan. We talked for a minute before I asked: “Do you come down here often to paint?”
“As often as I can. I grew up in the city before moving with my family to Connecticut. I moved back to Maryland a few years ago because of my job and began coming here to paint on the weekends.”
“Are all your paintings of the Inner Harbor?”
“Most of them are, but I have a few of other parts of the city.”
We continue talking for a few minutes and got on the subject of how Baltimore differs from when he lived here as a child. Bryan states that it is clearly a better place to live now. He recounts memories of childhood fights that he would get into walking home from school and tells me how much of a difference the revitalization projects have had on the area.
“Did you know there are plans being discussed now to expand the Inner Harbor?” I ask.
“No, I didn’t know that. What kind of plans?”
I tell Bryan about the two revitalization projects I recently read about. The first project is an expansion of the Convention Center that will include a new hotel. The second phase of the project will be a new waterfront park, complete with a pedestrian bridge that would connect the north and south sides of the harbor. “I really hope those plans make it through all the red tape and governmental BS,” Bryan commented when I was done.
“Thanks to this promenade and all the renovations of the surrounding areas of the city, Baltimore has never felt more connected,” He continues.
“You can now easily and safely walk to a vast majority of the most popular areas of Baltimore. From Camden Yards to Fell’s Point to Canton to Mount Vernon; everything is accessible and connected now.”
Bryan and I parted ways a few minutes later after I told him that I was late meeting up with friends for lunch. By this time my hunger felt like a black hole that would never be satiated. As I arrived at Lexington Market, I was not surprised to discover that my friends didn’t wait for me before venturing inside.
This market is similar to many other market houses in cities along the East Coast, but with a distinct Baltimore feel about it. There are Natty Boh and Old Bay signs everywhere that look like they’ve been hanging there since the market house opened its doors. The smell of seafood permeates the air, instantly making my mouth water, and the melodies played by local musicians fight to be heard over the din of people bustling between food stands. People from all races and ways of life come here to enjoy some of the best that Baltimore has to offer, and they are rarely disappointed.
I ambled through the crowds, enjoying the atmosphere as I took in all the sights and sounds the market house provides, seemingly along a random path, but my end goal guided my feet. I knew there is only one place that could slay the dragon that was roaring in my stomach. I stepped up to the counter at Faidley’s Seafood and order a lump crab cake sandwich with a mountain of fries on the side. I then sat down nearby to await my food and watch at the sea of people moving around me.
I realized that all of these people are connected by this city just like the promenade connects everything along the harbor. This city brings people from all corners of the world together, forces them to interact and build relationships with one another. It is the common ground that everyone from this area stands on. We all have memories of the streets of Baltimore and things that this city has taught us. Life lessons that have helped shaped who we are as human beings. For a period in all these people’s lives, whether it is long or short, they are joined together and Baltimore is the glue that holds them together. “Charm City” has an impact on everyone who visits her streets and she changes lives in many different ways.
My number is called and I gathered my food and drink. My companions have found a table and I joined them as we finish our lunch. The sandwich was delicious, but will never be better than my hometown crab cakes. Maybe I’m a little biased on the subject, but no crab cakes can compare to those you’ll find in Annapolis.
As a group, we made our way back to the Charles Center metro stop as our day in Baltimore came to an end. We descended beneath the ground and hopped on our train for the journey home. I picture the metro stop as a sort of portal that links the city with the outside world. If we ever need to take a break and get away from our everyday lives it’s simple. We just gather the things we need that day and step through the portal, into a different world that will help us forget, for a time, about the stress we face.
Baltimore connects us in ways we don’t realize as we walk along its streets and enjoy what the city brings to our lives. It works in subtle ways. Showing us something new every time we visit, and reminding us of why Baltimore holds that special place in our hearts. It may get caught in the shadow cast by cities such as New York and D.C., but it holds its own as one of the greatest cities in America.