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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.”

I dissent.

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.

And yet.

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.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

Exactly so, John. We have been here 35 years now, but still feel like recent arrivals, in many ways. My husband has had many job offers over the years, but after careful consideration of pros and cons, we always chose to stay here.

I was pleased to see a newspaper reference to Mencken while we were in the U.K. on vacation recently. I was less pleased that he was identified as a "Chicago writer." Harrumph!

As someone who is as dedicated a resident of Manhattan as you are of Baltimore, and who firmly intends to be removed from hearth and home only feet-first, I salute your local patriotism. I cherish a line I read in the New York Times circa 1980: "It is still possible [for an artist] to starve in a SoHo garret, but not cheaply."

I do love visiting Baltimore and always want more time there. The free museum as you mentioned is so wonderful and of course I am a fan of EP Public Library! I love the farmer's markets, the "walking" neighborhoods, delicious quick foods at a corner cafe', Whole Foods, Trader Joes, the place that gives away free books and more.

John, what do you think of 'The Wire'?

Unlike everyone over here, I couldn't enjoy the thing: the acting seemed unrealistic. I've no idea what Baltimore cops and criminals are like, but I've known a few newspaper folk.

Or are Baltimore journos, cops and crims really so poker-faced?

As a resident of a city with a Grand Prix, may I offer my condolences? You cannot really just ignore the race, even if you live and work far enough away not to hear it. The Grand Prix has an unfortunate effect on the brains of a particular section of society, who feel the need to emulate their heroes on public roads. I know when the race is on by the squealing tyres, revving engines and screeching brakes heard in suburban streets. How are such folk referred to in the US? Here in Terra Australis they are known as hoons. Hoon is a once slang word which is becoming part of our formal language. Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton had his (street) car confiscated here last year when he fell foul of anti-hoon laws.

Tell those damn motorheads to begone to the Eastern Shore and scare chickens with their racket, and leave peaceable folk alone to eat crabs and drink beer or eat crabs and drink ice tea or eat crabs and eat more crabs.

Is that Baltimore enough for you, sir?

Sent this onto my mom, another job-caused Baltimore transplant.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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