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No doubt about it - as you read this, Maryland's largest city, Baltimore, is going through its most wrenching moment in decades. But while like every single large U.S. city, it has its problems, the current difficulties are centered in West Baltimore, home to a fraction of the city's 622,000-plus residents - and caused by a thuggish element that's taken advantage of a tragedy to inflict yet more tragedy on an already stressed community.No doubt about it, this localized eruption was a long time coming, and will take a lot of work by government, civic institutions, churches, and of course the local people themselves to resolve long-term.
But it's also worth keeping something else in mind: this one event does not by any means define what Baltimore is all about (as has already been pointed out by observers such as Pat Garofalo in U.S. News and World Report). In fact, when I rang up an old college friend who has lived there for years, for her the scenes playing out on the TV machine seemed as remote as they are for the rest of us in the U.S. Because this very distinctive metropolis on an arm of Chesapeake Bay remains one of America's most diverse, venerable (founded 1729), and dynamic cities in the USA, site of country-changing events; cradle of figure who themselves have made inestimable contributions to this country's history and culture; and by all accounts an urb still on the move and successfully reinventing itself.
Home today to distinguished institutions such as one of America's foremost universities, Johns Hopkins, Baltimore played a key part in the American Revolution, and it was here, watching the British assault on Fort McHenry (above), during the War of 1812, that Francis Scott Key penned the national anthem. Other figures which lived and drew inspiration from the city include slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass; literary legends Edgar Allan Poe and H.L. Mencken; jazz giants Eubie Blake and Billie Holiday, and in our own time, zany gay filmmaker John Waters (do read my colleague Ed Wetschler's marvelous post Offbeat Baltimore: John Waters Rules).
Yes, as with many other American cities, there did come a period of decline; by the 1970s, Baltimore's downtown Inner Harbor area was definitely on the skids. But a comeback commenced with urban renewal kicked off in part by the new Maryland Science Center in 1976 - which today includes a super aquarium, planetarium, and IMAX theater (this was complemented, by the way, in 1981 by the absolutely stupendous National Aquarium, affiliated with a sister aquarium in Washington, DC.).
So what's the lay of the land and what does it have to offer visitors? In addition to the two aforementioned institutions, the once sad-sack Inner Harbor - now way trendy and is a major cultural and historic magnet for visitors as well as businesses (tech start-ups especially), boasts a bunch. A centerpiece is Harborplace, a cool complex mixing local and national brands and businesses, along with the 1850s "sloop-of-war" USS Constellation, which you can visit right at the dock here. Another cool waterfront stop is the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse (above), a great (and very red) example of a typical low, round Chesapeake lighthouse. Other nearby attractions include the Port Discovery Children's Museum, one of America's best; and the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which explores B'more's industrial past and some of the key developments and companies that built this city. And down in the south harbor,the American Visionary Art Museum is a rara avis indeed - a slick presentation of outsider art that will leave you open-mouthed. Also near here is Camden Yards, home of the baseball Orioles, including the Babe Ruth Museum, dedicated to a Baltimore boy who became one of the game's most legendary ball players of all time. Then there also are of course various harbor cruises available (including out to Fort McHenry), most notably the Pride of Baltimore, And finally, some of the city's top dining, shopping, and schmoozing has been in full swing for several years in Harbor East.
A bit farther north in Charles Village (right near Johns Hopkins, in fact), culture vultures especially must not miss the Baltimore Museum of Art, built in 1914 in an ancient-Roman-temple style, featuring works by the likes of Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Degas, Renoir, and countless other masters (and, yo, free admission!). Nearby there are a couple of lovely historic houses,Homewood and Evergreen, as well as Sherwood Gardens, famous especially for its spring tulips. And if you're a lacrosse fan/player (as is my nephew Matt), check out the U.S. Lacrosse Museum/Hall of Fame up here, too. Even out west there are a couple of cool spots to visit - my fave is (attention train buffs!) the B&O Railroad Museum, which actually includes vintage train rides, how cool is that!
And of course, if you're an Edgar Allan Poe fan as I am (or, hey, just have a thing for ravens, whatever), head west of downtown/Inner Harbor to the Poe House and Museum on North Amity Street, open weekends only from late May to mid-December (most definitely a suitably surreal/creepy experience, actually, because there are no furnishings in the house; if you want Poe memorabilia and nevermore, hie thee to the Pratt Library at 400 Cathedral Street).
And beyond all the fascinating landmarks and museums, it's most of all the colorful Baltimore neighborhoods - some 200 of them - which unlock the real key to this blue-collar city. My favorites include Little Italy (mamma mia, the tiramisù at Piedigrotta Bakery!), Highlandtown, a historic area northeast of Inner Harbor (once German, now Latino, and home to a pretty funky arts/entertainment district), and Fells Point (actually on the harbor as well, an area of with lots of 18th- and 19-th-century buildings which were once boarding houses and brothels, and now filled with restaurants, nightspots, and hotels).
Speaking of restaurants, while Baltimore is naturally best known for its Chesapeake crab houses (Bo Brooks on the waterfront in Canton comes to mind), but there's a lot more cooking around here, from the down-home to the way, way upmarket. When it comes to fine dining, I especially dig Woodberry Kitchen (a farm-to-table star up near the Maryland Zoo), my darling Clementine (New American and multi-culti charcuterie up in the Hamilton neighbood, and BTW especially kid-friendly), and Cinghiale (a splendido upmarket Italian in Harbor East/Little Italy).
Well, wow - just taking stock of all my Baltimore faves has got me totally jonesing for a return visit, so as of this summer/fall you can totally expect more dispatches from "Charm City"...
More information: Baltimore.org.