Two-wheeled Tour

A doctor prescribes a new way to check up on the city's wonders -- a dose of pedal power

October 15, 2007|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN REPORTER

Sunday morning in Patterson Park: Dr. Ralph Brown stands at the base of the park's picturesque pagoda and debriefs eight bicyclists before a "bakery tour" of Baltimore.

"You have to eat sweets and you have to listen," Brown commands in a tone that has endeared the pediatrician to his patients and their parents for decades. His dissonant instructions spur laughter.

The tour he designed is an exploration of Baltimore's immigration history, but "If I called it a `history of immigration to Baltimore' tour, nobody would have any interest," says Brown, ready to roll in an orange wind shell and brown shorts over black tights.

The panoramic view from Patterson Park provides a sense of the areas the group will be riding through - Canton, Brewers Hill, Highlandtown, as well as Fells Point and Little Italy, says Brown, a Rochester, N.Y., native. Here immigrants settled and worked "to make Baltimore a great industrial city."

The tour pushes off, past a lively soccer game coached in Spanish, a peewee football game and any number of dogs, straining at their leashes and eager to tree a squirrel or two.

As Brown, who came to Baltimore in 1967 to attend Johns Hopkins medical school, leads the way, Baltimore is no longer a blur viewed through a car window, but a tapestry of the city's past, present and future. His lessons penetrate mind and body as the tour rumbles over cobblestones, pauses for ethnic delicacies, takes in the city's narrow streetscapes and sweeping vistas.

By early afternoon, the city has attained a persona as rich and layered as the tiramisu that the group would sample in a Little Italy bakery world-renowned for the concoction.

An avid cyclist, Brown, 62, founded Monumental Bike Tours in 2004 as a way to share his bike's-eye view of the world with others. The name of Brown's small company is inspired by Baltimore's former nickname as the "Monumental City," bestowed by President John Quincy Adams.

Baltimore "was a very important, very powerful 19th-century city," Brown says. Although the town's many landmarks testify to its place in history, most people drive by and "never think about them," Brown says.

Brown designed his first tour to remedy that civic lapse. Among the stops on his "monument tour" are the city's Battle Monument, a tribute to soldiers who fought in the War of 1812; as well as landmarks honoring the Civil War, Revolutionary War, Francis Scott Key and of course, George Washington.

From a tour of Baltimore's monuments, Brown's itinerary has expanded to include the bakery tour and a tour of 15 outdoor murals combined with a visit to Viva House, a Catholic Worker soup kitchen and food pantry in West Baltimore. Brown, still a practicing physician, leads four to eight tours a year, depending on his schedule.

Each of Brown's outings comes with a civics lesson. This tour, for example, was inspired by the current debate over allowing newcomers into the country. It is "such a hot issue," Brown says. "As a good citizen, you want to know and understand these issues with some depth so you can have an educated opinion."

On Sunday, Brown rolls out a new tour also with a topical theme. His "locavore tour" will take cyclists through the countryside on visits to several organic farms and a vineyard.

After a scenic jaunt past stage set-perfect Formstone rowhouses, the group's first stop is Di Pasquale's. "This place has incredible bread," Brown says.

The Gough Street institution is closed on Sundays, but owner Joe Di Pasquale is there, nevertheless, tending to paperwork and awaiting the group. Seated in the Italian deli's small dining room, which doubles as a family portrait gallery, the cyclists hear Di Pasquale's tale: "My grandfather started the business in 1914, one block down the street. It was a typical corner store." He and his wife "lived over the store" where they raised six children.

This part of Baltimore, though, is no longer an Italian stronghold, the cyclists learn. People "used to live and die here - not any more," Di Pasquale says. With both parents at work, and a lower birth rate, "You're not going to have that neighborhood feel like we did."

More wedded to Food Network-inspired extravaganzas than nightly family meals, patrons outside the Gough Street neighborhood often come for specialty items, or they may just come in to buy "a quarter-pound of prosciutto, that's it," Di Pasquale says with a slight tone of resignation.

As Di Pasquale's guests nibble Sicilian tea biscuits studded with tender pignoli nuts, they also absorb a lesson in resilience and adaptation.

"I'm happy to know that Di Pasquale's is here," says Kelly Papke, a Towson veterinarian who grew up in Hampden. True to the new demographics of Di Pasquale's clientele, she has a recipe from Food Network goddess Giada De Laurentiis in mind, an alloy of pasta, greens and cheese that will require a return visit to the shop.

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