Baltimore, my Baltimore
My colleague Dan Rodricks wrote a few days ago in defense of the forthcoming Grand Prix race in downtown Baltimore,* chiding those who gripe that it is, among other things, an inconvenience. In the course of his argument, he characterized the town thus:
“The result has been an odd mix of southern rube, tattered aristocrat, yearning immigrant and landed gentry, reflecting a middle temperament that in the 21st century is still suspicious of pretense and leery of collective civic ambition. New York or Boston can compete to be the center of the universe; Baltimore just snorts along, with a post-industrial drip, hardly ever making a boast or brag. The city has always had a strange inferiority complex.”
Mr. Rodricks, like me, is an auslander. I have lived here a mere twenty-five years. I doubt that you can be thought a genuine Baltimorean unless your grandparents were born here, and even that may be a little arriviste. But I have been intrigued by the city since at age eighteen I came across H.L. Mencken’s “On Living in Baltimore” in James T. Farrell’s selection of his Prejudices essays.
Mencken worked for years as an editor in New York, which he described as “the greatest city of the modern world, with more money in it than all Europe and more clowns and harlots than all Asia,” but with “no more charm than a circus lot or a second-rate hotel.” When he took the train back to Baltimore he left behind “a place fit only for the gross business of getting money” to go to ”a place made for enjoying it.”
Baltimore for Mencken was where you could “accumulate the materials of a home—the trivial, fortuitous and often grotesque things that gather around a family, as glories and debts gather around a state.” A home like Mencken’s on Hollins Street appealed for “its capacity for accretion and solidification,” “its quality of representing, in all its details, the personalities of the people who live in it.”
In fine, he proclaimed, “I believe that this feeling for the hearth, for the immemorial lares and penates, is infinitely stronger in Baltimore than in New York—that it has better survived there, indeed, than in any other large city of America—and that its persistence accounts for the superior charm of the town.”
What Mencken describes is not an “inferiority complex”—what is this, 1955?—but a sense of person and place, a comfortable identity. To outsiders it may look like dowdiness** and provinciality, is a realism and practicality. And yes, charm.
We do not have to spend a fortune to live in a garret, as many do in New York, or compromise our citizenship, like those who live without representation in Washington, D.C. When the paper was still hiring copy editors, I would tell applicants that they could live better and more cheaply in Baltimore than in any comparable city on the Atlantic seaboard.
We are not smug. We know about crime—there have been three homicides within a block of my house in the past two years. We know that the public schools are in a distressing state—I spent a small fortune to educate my children at private schools. We know that the taxation is high, the public services sketchy.
I can walk into the Baltimore Museum of Art—it’s free—to look at the Matisses in the Cone Collection. If I were not working at nights, I could go to concerts at the Baltimore Symphony or Peabody Conservatory. I borrow books from the well-run Enoch Pratt Free Library. There are now excellent places to dine on Harford Road a mile or so from my house. My commuting time to the paragraph factory is about twenty minutes. I know and am known by people in a parish in which I have been a member for twenty-three years. The house I live in is not the family home of many generations, but I shall have to die in it because moving would mean cleaning out the garage.
Though I am not a Baltimorean, I am a resident of Baltimore, and content to be so. I don’t need a Grand Prix roaring around the Inner Harbor to tell me than I have landed fortunately.
*You may rank me among the non-cheerleaders. (Note the hyphen.)
**When we write in The Sun about “fashion-forward” people, as when we write about the Grand Prix, I reserve a private opinion.