Many of us love it, so let's work to save it

March 06, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

I get that tourist thing a lot. People call and ask for tips on where to take out-of-town visitors to hear good music or eat good food or absorb great atmosphere, or an out-of-town visitor will ask me to explain something that strikes him as odd, such as all those black-and-white "Believe" signs or that giant, aluminum man-woman statue in front of the train station. (Some things can't be explained.) And it's OK. No problem. I enjoy doing this. I caught a lot of the tourist thing in just the last few days. Winter is ending. People want to get out and about.

"Twenty years in Baltimore and we've never been to Fells Point," a man from Harford County said on Saturday.

He and his family had just come from breakfast at Jimmy's Restaurant, and a tour of a Coast Guard cutter berthed at Thames and Broadway. The family obviously had enjoyed the experience - it was like a field trip! - and the man asked me for other suggestions on places to eat and visit.

"What else have I missed?" he asked.

I didn't know where to begin.

I was also struck by the phrase "20 years in Baltimore" because it's not exactly accurate. He meant "20 years in the Baltimore area." It's simply not unusual for families to never visit the real Baltimore - the non-Harborplace, non-Camden Yards Baltimore - though they live only 20 to 30 miles away from the city. They harbor fears or worries about visiting it. They know little about Baltimore other than what they see on local TV news, and that's a bleak picture.

Others feel a connection despite living at a distance.

"Our mayor is doing a great job," I heard a woman from Bel Air say on a sports-talk radio show in 2001, right after the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

She was not speaking about the mayor of Bel Air. She was speaking of Martin O'Malley (though she might not feel exactly the same way about the job he's doing five years later).

I can't recall the exact subject of the conversation, but the woman obviously was caught up in the civic pride of the moment, and certainly the Ravens' success made her feel all warm and fuzzy about the city. Or maybe - quite likely the case - she had grown up in Baltimore and had moved out to raise a family in a safer suburb with better schools, yet still felt the connection, still considered herself a Baltimorean.

She might have been one of the many people who live in the 'burbs for practical reasons but still love the city and yearn for city life. That's also a common condition around here. I remember meeting a man from Bel Air after he had wandered into Matthew's Pizza on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown. This was a few years back. The man had been driving back to Harford County from downtown, headed to Interstate 95 on Eastern Avenue, and he had stopped at the pizza shop near Patterson Park for lunch. You can still buy a real tomato pie there and - what can I tell you? - it's one of Baltimore's little treasures. The man seemed surprised and genuinely delighted that the place was still open, and I remember him saying that Matthew's looked and smelled just as it did when he was taking dates to the Patterson Theater (now the Creative Alliance) across the street.

I had the feeling he intended to make return trips to Matthew's. He realized he had missed something, and that it was OK to do this now - that the neighborhood was relatively safe, and the flavor of the pizza nostalgic and better than almost anything he could find in Bel Air. I doubt he was ready to move back into the city, but many others have done so since then, particularly in once-declining parts of Southeast Baltimore.

This is why all of Baltimore, east and west, needs to finally fix itself from the inside out. This is what "Believe" is all about and why it's so important to keep attacking the drug addiction, poverty and crime - what a former Baltimorean described in a recent e-mail as "the abject chaos" - that forms the face of the Other Baltimore. This is why the city needs a school system that works, more employment opportunities for men and women coming out of incarceration, and affordable housing for families trying to settle down and settle in after long cycles of dysfunction.

If we can reach the tipping point - more children educated and healthy, more families whole, and more adults employed and drug-free - we might catch the real generational break that makes the city a better, safer, more inviting place with a growing population. The children now growing up in the 'burbs might want to live and work here.

In the meantime, I get that tourist thing a lot, and it's OK. I enjoy doing this.

"What other places have I missed?" the man from Harford County asked me on Saturday. "Maybe you should give me a list."

Maybe I should. But I've run out of room today.

Watch this space.

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