Several weeks ago, Baltimore wags were having a fine time with Mayor Martin O'Malley's new slogan, "Baltimore, the Greatest City in America."
For once, I managed to keep my mouth shut. Or, more precisely, to keep fingers away from keyboard, which is difficult since I make a living as a writer and editor.
Truth be told, however, I did ponder a rewrite along the lines of "Baltimore: Can't Get Much Worse Than This."
In spite of the challenges facing the city, I live in Barre Circle, which is undoubtedly one of the best neighborhoods in town. Granted, we have to fight with the city on a handful of issues, such as the rat race, broken sewer pipes and other essential services, which is frustrating and tedious.
Still, I can stand on my front steps and see the Bromo Seltzer Tower to the right and the dome of the B&O Railroad Museum to my left. Charming sights, both.
Another charm of this hidden neighborhood is our annual croquet tournament. For the past four years, residents have donned tuxedos, summer linens and vintage tea dresses and taken mallet to ball. Following the games, we sip champagne (the cheap stuff) and eat cucumber sandwiches (really). It is, truly, a preposterous sight.
It is not such peculiar behavior as urban croquet matches that make this place so comforting. Quite simply, it is the people who live here, hackneyed as that may sound. Barre Circle is a neighborhood that, in many ways, reflects the makeup of Baltimore. Perhaps 50 percent of homeowners are white and the other 50 percent African-American. There are also young and old, singles and gays, downtown workers and students from Maryland's professional schools.
In a neighborhood that is surrounded by some pretty rough - or what the media love to call "hard scrabble" - areas, we all look out for each other. For instance, I recently arrived home and was waylaid by my next-door neighbor.
"Mary, your back fence door was open, so I went in and checked your yard," she said. "Everything looked OK, but I thought you'd want to know."
Turns out, my 10-year-old son, lost in a little-boy imagination run amok, had forgotten to lock the gate.
It's that care and concern from neighbors that prompted my husband - we both grew up in single-family houses in middle-American suburbs - to note recently, "You know, I've been living in row homes so long now that I don't feel safe unless my neighbors are right beside me." I couldn't agree more.
And, speaking of my son, he really doesn't have much in the way of kids in the neighborhood to run around with. But what he does have is myriad adults in the neighborhood who are usually on the same wavelength as he is. Amazing how many grown-ups will lend him their dinosaur books, take him bird-watching at Cylburn Arboretum or let him help them mulch their yards while chatting about their favorite Fred Flintstone movies.
When there is a neighborhood cleanup, I have the luxury of letting him loose to help sweep and weed, knowing that any of a dozen people will be keeping an eye on him and making sure he gets back home safely after everything is tidy. And, yes, I leave the front door unlocked at such times so he can let himself in and out.
When I hear those who have moved here speak about how unfriendly Baltimore is, it invariably is from people who decided to live in the suburbs, largely because of understandable concerns about safety and schools. In my neighborhood, I tell them, we're so under siege that everyone takes care of everyone else. Down here, the so-called mean streets are downright comfy.
First Fridays, in the warmer months, see residents congregating in the commons area. Everyone brings burgers to cook on the community association's grill, along with slaw, salad, whatever.
It is a neighborhood where the avian population has grown so over the years, largely because our trees are flourishing, that there's no need to go much of anywhere else to bird watch: one can see cardinals, robins, lovebirds, sparrows, jays and others. One can even hear owls hooting at night.
More than once, I have seen a gaggle of baby bunnies casually march down the brick walkway going on about their business with hardly a care.
I can sit in my back yard on a summer evening and, assuming the Orioles aren't in town, not have a clue that I'm right smack in the middle of a big city. If the O's are playing, I only need to listen to the cheers - or groans - to know how things are going over at Camden Yards.
I still have problems with all that "greatest city" business. Yet, I'm lucky to live in a great neighborhood.
And the croquet tournament is set for Saturday, July 28 at 5 p.m., the Barre Circle south commons. Feel free to join us, Mayor O'Malley. My neighbors and I would love to have you on our team.
Mary Midland writes from Barre Circle. She is the editor for WHERE Baltimore magazine and a freelance writer.
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