Geographically impaired going to Dundalk, Essex

June 23, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

To live in Baltimore is to get lost in Baltimore.

Life here is a puzzle of streets and a confusion of neighborhoods.

Each month I discover some hidden thoroughfare and its accompanying terrace of secluded houses, but don't dare ask me to direct you there.

From the air, or on a map, Baltimore's geography seems fairly straightforward.

The streets mostly conform to a grid pattern. Several of the main arteries radiate out from the center of the city like the spokes on a wagon wheel. The Beltway encircles the outer rim. In theory, it's not that complicated. The traffic engineers even hang huge signs over the middle of big streets.

But the reality is different. Get the compass, the maps and the prayer books. Hope there will be friendly and knowledgeable gas station attendants to point you in the right direction. Better have the telephone number of where you're heading so you can call and plead, "Help! I'm hopelessly lost."

There is a certain logic to these bouts of temporary bafflement.

Baltimoreans tend to be born and live their lives in one geographic quadrant.

They'll know their way around this district fairly well but they'll become utterly confused if moved to another sector.

It works like this:

Say you're a Northwest area person -- meaning your neighborhood roots might be Reservoir Hill, Ashburton, Forest Park, Gwynn Oak, Park Heights, Pimlico, Mount Washington, Fallstaff, Pikesville, Old Court, Lochearn, Woodmoor, Randallstown, Painters Mill or Owings Mills.

In this area, you'll know all the subsections, short cuts and maddening cul-de-sacs. You'll be able to distinguish Sudbrook from Villa Nova. You'll know Scott's Level and many of the local telephone exchanges. You'll recognize all the ins and outs of the streets that change names four times in less than a mile, often in midblock. You'll have a knowledge of the timing quirks of traffic lights. You can say which of your friends grew up in what house.

But somewhere there's an invisible line where a Baltimorean's knowledge of the lay of the land, its sociology, religious and ethnic backgrounds falls apart. Cross that boundary and you're in the Baltimore Twilight Zone.

To this day, I freeze up in geographic fright and ignorance when headed for Dundalk and Essex. I buy maps. I get advance directions. I look in the sky for help from homing pigeons. I ask to be driven in this area by people who were born and reared here.

And I take cabs. I recently hailed a city Yellow Cab and made a simple and direct request to my destination -- "Wise Avenue."

I, of course, had only a vague idea of the location of this huge and busy thoroughfare, one of the most main of Main Streets in this part of the world. I was certain that a cab driver would instantly know every curb on Wise Avenue. Guess again.

He turned around and said, "Wise Avenue? Hmmm. Beat's me. Where is it?"

I should have known better.

Dundalk lies outside the city limits. It is on a peninsula that sticks out toward Chesapeake Bay between the Patapsco and Back rivers. Wise Avenue crosses Bear Creek.

But peninsula geography is treacherous business in Baltimore, worse than a tough question on the game show "Jeopardy!"

And the region is filled with these nasty land formations that afford beautiful views of the Chesapeake and its tributaries but make for some of the trickiest geography this side of Dickeyville.

(Dickeyville, by the way, is a neighborhood in Baltimore. My brother and I went looking for it one day and wound up in Frederick, several counties to the west).

Only worse than a Dundalk address to a lost soul not from these parts is an Essex destination.

Even something obvious, such as Eastern Boulevard, which is the asphalt continuation of Eastern Avenue, can be a trial to the geographically impaired.

Places such as Middle River are so difficult I need to get help from the police, preferably a police cruiser to lead the way.

I sympathize with people whose nerves cannot take the trip over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and who get substitute drivers to make the crossing.

Now all I need is a lead car the next time my cab is headed for Sunnythorn Road.

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