Life in a city where you often need directions

September 05, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

It was a simple enough assignment.

Show up at 1018 Windsor Road for a Labor Day cookout and chat session.

But as we locals know, to live in Baltimore is to get lost in Baltimore. Totally. Confusedly. Embarrassingly.

Baltimore has a Windsor Avenue, a Windsor Place, a Windsor Road. It also has a Windsor Mill Road. It runs in two parts so you can get lost twice on the same day. Don't even think about Milford Mill Road unless you know the way before hand.

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 the right direction. Better secure the telephone number of where you're heading so you can call to plead, "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 be utterly confused if moved to another sector.

It works like this:

Say you're a Northwest 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 sub-sections, its 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 mid-block.

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 sociological, religious and ethnic backgrounds fall 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 within this area by people born and reared there.

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

I had only an 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???. Hummm. 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 the 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 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 west Baltimore. My brother and I went looking for it one day and wound up in Frederick. No, not Frederick Avenue, Frederick Street or Frederick Road, but several counties to the west.

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