Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Read a magazine and then you're in Baltimore..."

I'm sure I'll exhaust the lyrics of this tired old song soon enough, but they seemed appropriate for today.

I have been wanting to visit Baltimore for some time now. I had even hoped to squeeze in a visit when I was in DC in March, but there just wasn't enough time. Anyway, I met several other fellow first year students in the city planning program at Maryland at my GRA orientation on Tuesday and I went to Baltimore today with one of them. Brent is a fellow research assistant, and he's my local guide: he grew up in nearby Rockville. Anyway, we boarded a Penn Line MARC train at Washington's beautiful Union Station (and no, it wasn't a quarter to four). Less than an hour later, we were in Baltimore's Pennsylvania Railroad Station.

We walked to downtown along Charles Street, passing through the Mount Vernon neighborhood. I was amazed at how urban and lively the city felt. Perhaps growing up in the South had given me a false impression of the state of northern industrial cities, but the truth is that nothing could be further from the truth. Atlanta could use some lessons from Baltimore about what it means to be a city. Downtown is fairly standard as downtowns go, although Baltimore seems to have kept a lot of residential units fairly close to and within the urban core. It reminded me of Seattle for some reason, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Brent and I decided to eat down by the Inner Harbor, and he insisted as a Marylander that I eat a crab cake sandwich: It was delicious.

After lunch, we trekked over to Little Italy and noticed on the northern edge that several square blocks housed recently constructed urban infill housing. Brent and I were left agahst at the contrast between the old streets of Little Italy and the new cookie-cutter townhouses south of Baltimore Ave. It is amazing that we knew how to build cities in the 1920s, but now we can't figure it out to save our lives--and that is not an understatement. If we are to have a sustainable society, especially in the face of peak oil, we must save our cities. Perhaps it's not that we can't, but that we don't have the will-power. I certainly hope for the best. Baltimore has good fielding postion; it never tore down a lot of its older housing stock.

A quick trip on the Metro (yes, Baltimore has one) took us over to Lexington Market, where we changed to the Light Rail (yes, they have one of those too). We made a quick trip to Federal Hill, which is a nice mix of Little Five Points and Chicago.

I think Baltimore is one of America's great undiscovered secrets, and I'll definitely be back there, hopefully often. I don't think that their motto "the Greatest City in America" is too far-fetched. But what do I know? Come and visit for yourself.

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