Charmed, I’m sure

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY MARC FISHER PHO­TOS BY KATHER­INE FREY

Baltimore’s Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, once the city’s supreme sky­scraper, al­ways de­liv­ers a smile. It’s a sym­bol of kitsch and nos­tal­gia, like the city it­self. It’s a re­minder of a gritty past and an un­cer­tain present.

And right now, it’s mak­ing me feel like I’ve stum­bled into the fan­tas­tic world of the movie “Hugo,” be­cause I’m in­side the clock at the top of the tower, in­side the glo­ri­ous Seth Thomas time­piece that still serves the city 102 years af­ter it was in­stalled for $3,965.

Joe Wall, the tower’s fa­cil­ity man­ager — he’s the guy who puts col­ored gels on the clock’s lights to cel­e­brate im­por­tant oc­ca­sions — is lead­ing a free tour of the Clock Room, com­plete with the story of the tower’s hey­day (a 20-ton blue bot­tle of the headache rem­edy sat atop the build­ing), its de­cline (a stereo­typ­i­cal Baltimore tale of ne­glect and de­spair) and its re­nais­sance (re­born as artists’ stu­dios).

And my usual re­ac­tion to Baltimore — Get me a Bromo — fades away, at least for the moment.

I’ve al­ways been torn about Baltimore. I’m mys­ti­fied by Washington fans who lustily add an Ori­oles “O” to the singing of the na­tional an­them at Na­tion­als Park. I have about as much in­ter­est in news from the next big city up the North­east Cor­ri­dor as I do in, say, Pitts­burgh.

On the other hand, I’ll hap­pily stop off in Baltimore’s Lit­tle Italy on my way down In­ter­state 95 head­ing home from a New York jaunt, and it’s a cheap plea­sure to join other Yan­kees fans in tak­ing over Cam­den Yards when­ever the Bronx Bombers are in town. As long as Baltimore fans aren’t us­ing their lovely ball­park, it’s nice of them to lend it to us.

But I never got into the true-grit ro­mance of Baltimore. Those black bill­boards that Martin O’Mal­ley put up around town when he was mayor, urg­ing his dispir­ited con­stituents sim­ply to “BE­LIEVE,” struck me as more pa­thetic than stir­ring. I loved HBO’s “The Wire,” es­pe­cially the episodes writ­ten by Washington nov­el­ist Ge­orge Pele­canos, but its de­pic­tion of Baltimore didn’t ex­actly make me pine for the place, let alone want to pop up for a week­end get­away.

So when the Travel edi­tors sug­gested that I check in on our neigh­bor to the north­east, I ad­mit to a cer­tain grumpi­ness, in­formed by decades of hear­ing Randy New­man’s pained wail (“Oh, Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live”) in the back of my mind and by a pesky al­lergy to all things John Wa­ters. (I en­joy a great bee­hive hairdo as much as the next guy, but camp, ul­ti­mately, is as empty as Baltimore’s rub­ble-strewn va­cant lots.)

For a city of its size, and es­pe­cially one with its rep­u­ta­tion — the day af­ter the Su­per Bowl, the Onion pro­duced one of its in­stant gem

head­lines: “Baltimore Look­ing for Safer City to Host Su­per Bowl Pa­rade” — Charm City has a splen­did ar­ray of at­trac­tions. But when it comes to ba­sics such as the In­ner Har­bor, Na­tional Aquar­ium, Wal­ters Art Mu­seum, Fort McHenry and Fells Point, most Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have prob­a­bly al­ready been there.

In­stead of re­vis­it­ing old fa­vorites such as the Amer­i­can Vi­sion­ary Art Mu­seum, I wanted to push back against my bias, mea­sure the march of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion against the preser­va­tion of the city’s much-bal­ly­hooed old neigh­bor­hoods, ex­plore, eat well — and maybe even fig­ure out what I really think of the place. Where grit meets hip

My wife, Jody, and I start off with a test that any de­cent city should pass in a flash: A sand­wich you can’t find any­where else. Score one for Baltimore. On the day be­fore the Su­per Bowl, we wait with a crowd of pur­ple-clad lo­cals in the queue at Tri­nacria, be­hind metal grat­ing just north of down­town on Paca Street, and in the time it takes to or­der our porchetta, pro­volone and grilled onions panini, we’re lured over to a fine se­lec­tion of Ital­ian bak­ery cook­ies, a smor­gas­bord of spicy olives, fresh pasta and a star­tling se­lec­tion of $4 wines. Yes, $4. (Park­ing out­side is plen­ti­ful and stun­ningly cheap. This will be­come a theme.)

Tri­nacria is like New Or­leans’s Cen­tral Gro­cery or Pitts­burgh’s Pri­manti Bros., an old-school sand­wich shop with counter staff who love to yak it up with the cus­tomers, nearly all of whom are reg­u­lars. Any time you can get a taste of neigh­bor­hood re­la­tion­ships with your juicy hot sand­wich, your day is start­ing strong.

Prop­erly for­ti­fied, we de­cide to check out what street signs tout as the “Sta­tion North Arts and En­ter­tain­ment District,” a strip of North Charles Street near the Am­trak sta­tion that is in early-stage gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, that strangely al­lur­ing phase in which boarded-up build­ings, empty lots, home­less men sprawled across stoops, warmly wel­com­ing cof­fee spots and ex­per­i­men­tal the­aters share the streetscape, all wait­ing to be dis­placed by de­vel­op­ers with big­ger ideas and deeper pock­ets.

On a cold morn­ing on the cusp of snow, we duck into the Bo­hemian Cof­fee House, which bills it­self on a sign in­side as “Baltimore’s best place to take awk­ward dates.” Sure enough, the room is buzzing — lit­er­ally — with the jew’s-harp stylings of Ian Hes­ford from the Balti- I wanted to push back against my bias, mea­sure the march of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion against the preser­va­tion of the city’s much-bal­ly­hooed old neigh­bor­hoods, ex­plore and eat well. more tribal jam band Te­lesma, which spe­cial­izes in mes­mer­iz­ing trance and elec­tronic mu­sic with a Mid­dle East­ern and Cen­tral Asian fla­vor.

Hes­ford, ac­com­pa­nied by a jovial drum­mer who chats mid-ses­sion with cus­tomers a few ta­bles away, switches from the mouth harp to the didgeri­doo, the Aus­tralian wind in­stru­ment made from hol­lowed-out eu­ca­lyp­tus trees. And be­tween the mu­sic, the hip­ster vibe, the im­pres­sive se­lec­tion of loose teas and the “Sexy in Soot” wall cal­en­dar fea­tur­ing work­ing guys in hard hats, we feel as if we’ve walked onto an in­die film set. (On the other hand, we parked for free and the mu­si­cians played for tips. Cheap and easy, once more.)

There’s a self-con­scious cel­e­bra­tion of the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween grit and hip go­ing on here — look how au­then­tic we are, the neigh­bor­hood’s new ar­rivals seem to be say­ing; or as a lo­cal head­line put it: “Sta­tion North: Is It Brook­lyn Yet?” — and it comes off as a bit pre­cious. Some­how, it’s a re­lief to step out­side, walk around the cor­ner and ex­change greet­ings with a cou­ple of guys ly­ing on the pave­ment in front of a long-dead

movie the­ater.

The art of park­ing

But the artsy crowd in Sta­tion North gets us in the mood for the twice-monthly open house at the Bromo Tower, that de­light­ful bit of early 20th-cen­tury cor­po­rate fan­tasy ar­chi­tec­ture on South Eutaw Street near the ball­park. Mod­eled af­ter the Palazzo Vec­chio in Florence, the or­nate 15-story tower is best known for that iconic clock, which spells out the name of the patent medicine once pro­duced in a fac­tory at­tached to the of­fice build­ing.

Now, the build­ing — which turns out to be star­tlingly small on the in­side — has been con­verted into stu­dios for painters, pho­tog­ra­phers and even a play­wright. For as lit­tle as $320 a month (what a bargain, again), artists have them­selves a place to work, a com­mu­nity, spec­tac­u­lar views of down­town and a ready-made

in­door art fair on the first and third Satur­days of each month.

Mak­ing our way from floor to floor, we dis­cover Janet Lit­tle Jef­fers’s lush and re­veal­ing pho­tos taken on a slow drive from An­napo­lis to San Diego, and Mar

tha Dougherty’s ele­gant wa­ter­col­ors of

Baltimore scenes pre­sented with af­fec­tion but never af­fec­ta­tion. On the top floor, con­fi­dent and ea­ger high-school stu­dents show their art and per­form their po­etry, which is about those same con­trasts we saw in Sta­tion North, but viewed through a more rig­or­ous lens — from the city bus and school hall­ways where bul­ly­ing and vi­o­lence shape a young per­son’s life far more than any new combo gallery and cof­fee spot.

Of course, Baltimore isn’t all art stu­dios and hip­ster shops. We zip over to the Na­tional Pin­ball Mu­seum, which moved last year from Washington’s Ge­orge­town Park mall to Baltimore’s

In some cities, easy park­ing is a sign of de­pop­u­la­tion and blight. And cer­tainly the ex­o­dus from Baltimore con­tin­ues. But some folks say that a place like Baltimore can im­prove its re­al­ity and its rep­u­ta­tion in part by get­ting smaller.

Water Street, near Port Dis­cov­ery and the Power Plant (and, alas, is clos­ing its doors March 3 while it looks for yet an­other home to re­lo­cate to). Fif­teen dol­lars bought us two hours of un­lim­ited play, a whirl of pin­ball mad­ness in­clud­ing games based on “Juras­sic Park,” “The Twi­light Zone,” “The Ad­dams Fam­ily,” “In­di­ana Jones” and even base­ball’s Frank Thomas and rock’s Ted Nu­gent.

Even here, in tourist cen­tral, street park­ing is plen­ti­ful and, yep, free on week­end evenings. Randy New­man got one thing wrong in his an­them to Baltimore’s dys­func­tion: “Hard times in the city / In a hard town by the sea,” he writes. “Ain’t nowhere to run to / There ain’t nothin’ here for free.”

Nothin’, ex­cept the Baltimore Mu­seum of Art (and its spec­tac­u­lar newish wing of con­tem­po­rary art), the sev­en­mile-long waterfront prom­e­nade, the peo­ple-watch­ing at Lex­ing­ton Mar­ket — and the park­ing.

Oh man, the park­ing. We park five times in 14 hours on Satur­day, for a to­tal cost of $1.70. Plus a free overnight spot im­me­di­ately across from our down­town ho­tel. For a Wash­ing­to­nian, this is a small ur­ban mir­a­cle.

In some cities, easy park­ing is a sign of de­pop­u­la­tion and blight. And cer­tainly the long, slow ex­o­dus from Baltimore con­tin­ues. But some folks who study cities say that a place like Baltimore can im­prove its re­al­ity and its rep­u­ta­tion in part by get­ting smaller.

All jazzed up

Even in de­cline, Baltimore has man­aged to add some glitz to its grit. Har­bor East, just east of the In­ner Har­bor, is the kind of high-end real es­tate devel­op­ment that city gov­ern­ments love be­cause they gen­er­ate rev­enue, even if true ur­ban­ists sigh at such clus­ters be­cause they look and feel the same from city to city.

Har­bor East features generic up­scale ar­chi­tec­ture, swanky shops (some­thing Baltimore hasn’t been as­so­ci­ated with in, oh, half a cen­tury or so), a Four Sea­sons ho­tel, apart­ments de­signed to at­tract a Ge­orge­town de­mo­graphic, and des­ti­na­tion restau­rants — some chain out­lets, but more in­ter­est­ingly, some of the city’s best-re­viewed lo­cal of­fer­ings (Cinghiale, Charleston, Pabu).

We eat at Ouzo Bay, a Greek seafood spot that looks like noth­ing in Greek­town; the sea blue is the same, but this place is de­signed to the hilt. This is a place with a seafood pro­gram, not a dog-eared menu. The crowd is no­tice­ably Baltimore — older, more ca­su­ally dressed, whiter and heav­ier than you’d find in a sim­i­larly priced spot in Washington. But the oc­to­pus is soft and fla­vor­ful, and the wait­ers know their fish. And we park, for free, right across the street.

Same thing later that night, as we drop by a place I’d long heard about but never vis­ited, An die Musik, which rou­tinely of­fers jazz, clas­si­cal and new mu­sic artists who don’t usu­ally make it to Washington. The room looks and feels like a Vi­en­nese sa­lon, with big, up­hol­stered easy chairs and gor­geous acous­tics. The crowd is knowl­edge­able, if small. We hear Emy Tseng, a D.C.-based singer of Brazil­ian jazz, with a stel­lar combo of Brazil­ian play­ers, and wish that Washington had a spot like this.

Se­ri­ously unse­ri­ous

We see other vis­i­tors from Washington the next morn­ing as well, at Wood­berry Kitchen, the only Baltimore restau­rant to make Tom Sietsema’s 2012 Fall Din­ing Guide. The wait staff looks as if they’ve walked out of a ru­ral out­post of Calvin Klein, and the food tran­scends the city’s iden­tity cri­sis. Tucked away in a con­verted mill­house near the Ham­p­den neigh­bor­hood, the restau­rant of­fers lo­cally sourced fare with a down-home aes­thetic, the in­tox­i­cat­ing smell of a wood-burn­ing oven and the kind of solid, no-gim­micks food you’d ex­pect to find in, say, Berke­ley, Brent­wood or Bethesda.

The Clip­per Mill re­de­vel­op­ment that houses the restau­rant feels noth­ing like Ham­p­den’s main drag, 36th Street, a col­lec­tion of an­tiques, vin­tage cloth­ing and fur­nish­ings shops that is very se­ri­ous about not tak­ing it­self se­ri­ously. Ham­p­den — which Forbes re­cently de­clared Amer­ica’s 15th “hippest hip­ster neigh­bor­hood” ( Washington’s H Street cor­ri­dor came in sixth) — is fa­mously home to Cafe Hon and Hon Town, kitschy show­cases of Baltimore’s im­age as a place where the val­ues, fash­ions and pop sen­si­bil­i­ties of the 1950s and ’60s still reign. (Hon Town, a themed sou­venir shop, styles its home town as “Bawlmer, Murlin.”)

Luck­ily, that bee­hive of kitsch doesn’t in­fect the en­tire neigh­bor­hood, which is dot­ted with places like Mi­nas, where painter Mi­nas Kon­so­las dis­plays his art in a gallery above his en­tic­ing col­lec­tion of vin­tage clothes (sell­ing at about half the price they’d go for in Washington thrifts). Here, or at spots such as the Parisian Flea, a calm­ing col­lec­tion of jew­elry and tchotchkes that will carry you back to al­most any decade of the last cen­tury, the strug­gle be­tween au­then­tic­ity and self-con­scious­ness fades away. On the side­walk, lo­cals in Ravens jer­seys ban­ter with vis­i­tors from the sub­urbs and be­yond. In the shops, con­ver­sa­tion comes eas­ily, with far less of the for­mal­ity that can make Washington seem stiff.

I end up car­ing a lot less about what’s real and what’s kitsch than I do about the com­fort of a town that has man­aged to stay easy and open de­spite the ev­i­dent ur­ban ten­sions of class, race and devel­op­ment. Baltimore is chang­ing, but so far it’s still af­ford­able, dis­tinc­tive and grounded.

I wouldn’t want to live there, but what a place to ex­plore.

1 A re­fresh­ing city: 1. build­ings in Har­bor East

5 5. the trendy Ham­p­den neigh­bor­hood

2 2. the Na­tional Pin­ball Mu­seum

3 3. and 4. the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower clock

4

7 7. a mu­ral of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis

6 6. out­door art around the artists stu­dios of Clip­per Mill

PHO­TOS BY KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASHINGTON POST

City view: Baltimore’s sky­line is shown through the arches of the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower. Tours of the clock tower are held twice monthly.

A place to chill: Bo­hemian Cof­fee House, which some­times features live mu­sic, has a hip­ster vibe and a good se­lec­tion of tea.

Food and fine art: At Ouzo Bay, right, a Greek seafood spot in Har­bor East, the wait­ers know their fish. At far right, wa­ter­color artist Martha Dougherty rents one of the 30 artists stu­dios in the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower.

Ser­vice with a smile: At Tri­nacria sand­wich shop, top, the counter staff loves to yak it up with the cus­tomers. The Clip­per Mill re­de­vel­op­ment, above, houses artists stu­dios, res­i­dences and Wood­berry Kitchen.

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