Tourists like this city more than the residents do

July 07, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Will someone explain to me why tourists love Baltimore so much?

Just look at the visual evidence. Tour buses line the parking lots off Central Avenue. There are queues in front of the National Aquarium and other Inner Harbor attractions. Some days Harborplace looks as if the glass walls are going to explode from the crush of tourists.

Listen to the verbal evidence, which is often more convincing than the numbers of tourists who visit here. Tourists go out of their way to say how much they enjoy Baltimore. They say they can't wait to come back. They tell their friends. Oriole Park alone gets so much praise its brick walls ought to blush.

Sometimes I walk through the mob of tourists, observing the crowd and eavesdropping on the tourists' comments. The line that brings a smile is when the visitors say how clean it is here. Evidently, many of them don't tour the back alleys of some of our decaying neighborhoods.

At times I feel like capturing them and hauling them away from the humdrum corridor of Pratt and Light streets. I'd like to transport them to the walkways around Federal Hill where the view of the city would rate at least one star in a Michelin Guide. Or get them to Fort McHenry, a spot that is not as popular as it should be.

Why is the fort not a main attraction, especially when admission is free?

The city's obvious attraction has to be the harbor, something that Baltimoreans do not take seriously. It's a big harbor, expansive and really quite majestic. It also looks great from a boat, one of those bobbing things that Baltimoreans avoid.

I've often thought that Baltimoreans remain a trifle unconvinced about the harbor because so many people once earned their paycheck on or near its banks. Can you make a tourist attraction out of the site of the daily grind?

Yet I've overheard visitors compliment Baltimore's status as a working city. They seem amused by our smokestacks, warehouses and working rail yards. And despite its pockets of poverty, Baltimore looks, from a distance, deceptively prosperous.

It is hard to take much consolation from visitors when you hear your neighbors say they are putting their houses up for sale and heading for the counties. Or you read of a near riot in the Lexington Market area in the early hours of the morning. Or hear gunshots around the corner.

Part of the reason it's hard today to believe that tourists find our charms so irresistible is the image of pre-1980 Baltimore. For so many years, Baltimoreans were not permit ted to take their city seriously.

I used to dread a tight pennant race, playoff games or World Series that Baltimore had a stake in.

Out-of-town sports writers would pile in, order a fatty hamburger on their employer's expense account, then knock off at least one or two feature stories lambasting Baltimore.

They said it was the city with an acute case of acne. They seemed to judge the entire city by The Block. They hated everything from the drinking water to the cab ride from the airport.

Baltimore-bashing was something of a sport in itself in the days before the tourists arrived. The criticism that the sports writers dished out from the press box at Memorial Stadium was caustic. It was often ill informed and designed to offend, thereby guaranteeing readers. And it was amazing how much offense we Baltimoreans took. We let these spoiled, tantrum-prone jerks injure our self esteem.

Since that time, we've let public relations hype put a good spin on many of the same institutions that were here for years. Now the tourists and the national news media cannot get enough of the city.

Formstone has been elevated to folk art. Painted screens are objects of serious aesthetic consideration. The local crab cake now enjoys the same type of culinary geographic recognition as the Kansas City steak or Maine lobster.

And yet, as the tourists line up on the hot pavement outside the National Aquarium, I cannot help wondering why. There is so much more here to see and enjoy. So much more that you won't find at home.

And yet, the longer the line for a third-rate crab cake, the more the summer visitors seem to like paying for it and eating it.

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