The city has a way of keeping its residents for a lifetime TO LIVE & DIE in Baltimore

March 06, 1994|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

Charlie Doble can't pinpoint the precise moment he became a lifer in this town.

It might have happened last month when, after 25 years, he bumped into his best friend from the fifth grade and the two started carrying on as if they still lived across the street from each other.

Or perhaps it occurred last summer when he went out for crabs and beer with the guys and found himself trolling through discarded shells for back fin that others had given up on.

No, Mr. Doble reckons, the most obvious sign that he's a lifelong, Orioles-loving native is in the way he gives directions. Ask him, for example, how to get to the new children's clothing store in Waverly, and he'll tell you it's across the street and down a little from the old Waverly movies. It's sound advice, except that the neighborhood cinema closed decades ago and is now a shoe store.

Call it fate, destiny or inertia. For many Baltimoreans this is the last, and often, only stop in life. With resignation, satisfaction or a commingling of the two, people hunker down here, slap the National Aquarium bumper sticker on the station wagon and help define the city's quirky personality.

Nearly three of four city residents are from Maryland, according to the 1990 Census. And they appear to have no intention of leaving.

Baltimore ranked among the least mobile cities in a recently published national study of migration called "Americans on the Move." Less than 15 percent of Baltimoreans had moved in the year prior to the study, says researcher Patricia Gober, a geography professor at Arizona State University.

"Baltimore is a national anomaly," she says. "It has a very stable population and . . . a long history of families and strong neighborhoods. The community has incredible investments in the city. But on the downside, its tradition tends to impede innovation and change."

Anyone who's ever had lunch at Lexington Market or attended a game at Memorial Stadium knows that life here can be like an Anne Tyler novel -- except that the accidental tour- ists are real-life natives. They sit on marble stoops, speak in syntax-garbling Bawlamerese and still lament the day the Mayflower vans took the beloved Colts away.

To them, the Bromo Seltzer Tower is a welcoming beacon to the city. Billie Holiday is one of their own -- no matter what biographers may say about Philadelphia being her birthplace. And Edgar Allan Poe's name is never misspelled.

Do well in Baltimore, and you'll be deified like moviemaker Barry Levinson and Oriole Hall-of-Famer Jim Palmer. Act slightly eccentric like former Oriole manager Earl Weaver or filmmaker Johns Waters and no one minds. But do wrong, as ex-Vice President Spiro Agnew and banker Jeffrey Levitt found out, and you're seldom forgiven.

"Baltimoreans have this almost adorable parochialism," says Rich Hollander, 45, a former TV reporter who now owns a production company in Baltimore. "As the rest of the world is charging around, being geographically mobile, people here place this premium on how long your family has been in Baltimore. You don't hear that in Dallas or Seattle or New York. I take it as quaint, as cute."

If you're a newcomer, you might not feel that way.

Danna Maller, who lived here several years ago, found Baltimore nearly impossible to break into.

"It has that small-town, narrow-minded point of view," says Ms. Maller, 35, who now lives in Washington. "There was almost an ignorance of what it's like to be a new person in a new town."

Although people were cordial, she says, many had friends from grade school or high school and showed little interest in expanding their social circle. She worked to meet people by joining a business-women's group, a gym and even changing jobs. Still, she felt out of sync.

Last on one list

When people asked where she went to school, Ms. Maller, a West Point graduate, was surprised to learn they meant high school, not college.

"And I never went to a party," she says. "Whose party was I going to go to?"

Although she left several years ago, Ms. Maller, who has lived in California, New York and Georgia, still finds her Baltimore experience unsettling.

"Keep in mind I have lived in Enterprise, Ala.," she says. "Other than that, Baltimore would be last on my list."

Contrast that with the tale of Denise Whiting, a native so charmed by Baltimore that she incorporated Baltimore's favorite term of endearment -- hon -- into the name of her 2-year-old Hampden restaurant: Cafe Hon.

"I suppose when I start wearing a beehive hairdo then I'll know I've become a real hon," she says.

She first understood Baltimore's pull on her when she attended the University of Maryland College Park in the late '70s.

Comfort zone

"It was so big," recalls Ms. Whiting, 34, who lives in Wyman Park. "I was at preregistration and the only course I could get was 'Beginning Trumpet.' I knew then I had to get back to Baltimore. It was my comfort zone."

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