On May 23, I spent my final night in Baltimore, a city I called home for seven years.* For several reasons I completed a move north the next day to Philadelphia, a city I lived outside of for the first 18 years of my life, and where I’m now seeking my next journalistic challenge with a foray into full-time freelance writing.
A few weeks have now passed, and I’ve had the chance to take stock of this change—one that’s filled me with a great deal of happiness and optimism, even as I’ve processed a profound feeling of sadness brought on by leaving a city I won’t ever stop loving. To the catharsis, then.
Two weeks before I came to Baltimore, my family moved south to Elkton, Maryland, and my home of 18 years—Coatesville, a small city about an hour to the west of Philadelphia—didn’t feel like home anymore.
My father, a native of Long Island, was compelled by a strong desire to be closer to water once again; his father, a former ad-copy man** at J. Walter Thompson, was a fisherman later in life, and he instilled in my dad a deep love for sailing. My mother, a native of Malvern, Pennsylvania, was also sold on the idea of moving to a house on the Elk River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
But the deciding factor motivating my parents to uproot themselves one year after my brother started college and 14 days before my first day at Loyola College in Maryland was the battle-cry of the Republican Party: taxes. For several years before 2007, the budget proposed by the Coatesville Area School District would have required raising property taxes on district residents by 24 percent. My parents spearheaded a movement against the tax increase. I was in junior high heading into high school at the time, far more worried about growing my hair long and playing drums in my band, but if memory serves, the campaign worked, to a degree—property taxes went up by only 10 percent.
(In some respects, I suppose, my parents were the unknowing harbingers of the 2010 national Tea Party movement. Somewhere in the ether there is news footage of my father strolling into a Coatesville City Council meeting wearing a fireman’s hat that had been adorned with hanging bags of Lipton tea; my mother, a fiery Italian woman capable of kicking your ass with her vocal cords, stood at the lectern at that particular meeting and called the city’s elected officials parasites sucking the life-blood out of the community. No doubt, dear reader, you’ve formed a fond or polemical impression of my parents depending on your political persuasion, but they are my people, and a pair I won’t apologize for having.)
All this, however, is merely backdrop. It’s the setting required to understand why I was now living in a new house only a couple weeks before I began freshman year of college—and why, for every summer following every successive year at college, save for one summer spent abroad in Cape Town, I stayed on campus.
I chose Baltimore because of the money, mainly. My choice at the end of high school was between the College of William and Mary and Loyola (since “re-designated” to Loyola University Maryland, a decision equal parts risible and misguided, if the opinion of the former editor of The Greyhound newspaper means anything anymore). Jon Stewart’s alma mater wasn’t offering any scholarship money; Loyola was. Excitement at William and Mary, I surmised, amounted to colonial Williamsburg and screaming on the Busch Gardens’ roller coasters; excitement in Baltimore, I hoped, was whatever a city could offer.
Baltimore quickly became my new home. I spent that first summer on campus bumming beer from juniors and seniors who were over 21 and heading to Camden Yards by Light Rail and taking the number 11 bus back. I walked to campus from Swallow at the Hollow with my summer roommate after being denied entry. (We were told that the bar wasn’t checking identification that night, which turned out to be false.) In mid-summer I spent several days updating a series of scavenger hunts through four different sections of the city for my job at Loyola’s community service center. I vividly remember walking through West Baltimore, around the Lexington Market area, with a good friend of mine, a black man to whom I quoted—after he asked how it felt to be surrounded by people who didn’t look like me—the Everclear song about being a scared white boy in a black neighborhood.
Over the years, I developed a fondness for Baltimore much in the same way I’ve grown to like country music.*** Which is to say, essentially, that once you realize the majority of people you will meet are friends of utility of the sort Aristotle explains in his Nicomachean Ethics, and that most other people and places and events are mere pit stops on a long journey, you begin to appreciate anything that is overwhelmingly earnest and honest. You want, even for a moment, an emotional connection so strong you can’t help but be nostalgic about it forever. I once had Alec Ross—the former senior adviser for innovation for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—tell me that Baltimore is “a real city with real people.” At the time, I thought his sentiment was boilerplate. Surely people in other cities, which are undoubtedly not inauthentic, are real, yes? Naturally a D.C. official who lives in Baltimore is going to extol his hometown during an on-the-record interview for a magazine based in Baltimore.
But Baltimore, its salient characteristic an endearing chip on a broad shoulder, a city that both loves and loathes The Wire, is real. You hate it, and you love it. You poke endless fun at the benches that read “The Greatest City in America,” and then you find an excuse to head to Fells Point on a Friday night at 11, not to be a drink-sodden belligerent, but to sit at the benches near Bond Street Wharf and let a summer breeze hit you. I think the happiest nights I had in Baltimore were those when I would walk, just walk, from my apartment in Bolton Hill to the Inner Harbor.
You discover things, like Tommy Joy, a bona fide jazz crooner, playing piano at the 13th Floor. You hear Pete Kanaras pick a guitar at Cat’s Eye. You thank Ron Scott for keeping open a joint like the Caton Castle.
You go back to Lexington Market, not because you want a hometown poverty tour, or because you’d like to lord your privilege-laden “knowledge” of a supposedly obscure neighborhood to fellow white friends, but because you just want the damn shrimp cheese steak.
You can’t go into a neighborhood like Remington spewing the word renaissance without experiencing a gut-check from old-time Baltimoreans, and, thankfully, it makes you feel a little less like a thoughtless 20-something.
And you meet people who do more for Baltimore—who push for housing policy reform, who rehab vacant properties, who teach kids just looking for a chance to be somebody—than you ever could, and it gives you hope.
I know I’m missing many, many elements in what is, admittedly, a woeful summary of a city that can’t possibly be translated into words.
From what I’ve seen so far in Philadelphia, I can tell I’m bound to love it. I won’t say, right now, that I do love it; I fear that would sound too cocksure and more than a tad disingenuous.
But I can say I love Baltimore. I always will.
I think there’s no better way to bring this modest atoning to a close than quoting, with slight modification, the ending to the short story “The Swimmers.” It was written in 1929 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man who spent five ill-fated years in Baltimore, a city whose politics and policies manage to rankle its most ardent supporters. Although Fitzgerald’s time in Baltimore was shaped by melancholy, he found in Baltimore something he lacked in his many travels: a home.
And so: New York City is a place. Washington, D.C., is a people. But Baltimore—well, Baltimore is a willingness of the heart.
*I’m certain to travel back and forth between Philadelphia and Baltimore, as the distance between them isn’t overly disagreeable, and there are still articles set in or about Baltimore that I’m still completing.
**The lore passed to me by my father is that his father, during his time at J. Walter Thompson, was responsible for writing some body of election copy for Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. The story, supposedly, is that my grandfather abruptly quit after a superior changed his copy from reading “why Dewey will win” to “why Dewey can win.” I don’t know if that’s true. What is true, however, is that Dewey didn’t win.
***Insert requisite groaning and admonition here.