One matter on which all who live in Baltimore can agree is that the area's local rail transit system leaves much to be desired.
But, hey, there is a system, more or less, and why shouldn't we use it? Growing up in Chicago, I learned that suburban dwellers can have a good time in the city getting around by rail transit. Sturdy shoes help.
Sure, the Baltimore light rail system has had a checkered career. It lost a couple of years to a double-tracking project that should have been part of the original design. And for a while, it was crippled by falling leaves. But when it runs, it's not half bad.
The subway from Owings Mills to Johns Hopkins Hospital runs daily with drama-free efficiency, but many Baltimoreans are hardly aware it exists.
The big flaw of these systems is that they don't interconnect particularly well. They come close at two points - near State Center and at Lexington Market - but there's no such thing as a real hub. That doesn't render it useless, though.
One recent Sunday, my wife and left our car in the spacious, free parking lot at North Linthicum and headed into the city. (Residents of the northern and northwestern suburbs have a choice of Metro and light rail stations. Folks who live to the west, east and northeast of town are out of luck for now.)
At North Linthicum, we were faced with a moral test, which we promptly flunked. Just as we arrived at the platform, in rolled a northbound train. Buying a ticket would have meant missing that train, so we decided to jump aboard and risk exposure as fare-beaters. Fortunately, we reached our destination undetected by fare inspectors and sought retroactive atonement by purchasing two $3.50 day passes.
The light rail corridor in the city offers a lot of choices. We could have got off at University Center and paid our respects at Edgar Allan Poe's grave. Or we could have disembarked at Centre Street and walked three blocks to the Walters Art Museum. On previous excursions, our destination was the Charles Theater - a short walk from the Mount Royal station - and its roster of films you can't see in suburbia.
This time we got off at the Woodberry stop, which also serves Hampden. Be warned. To get anything out of this stop, you have to be willing to walk.
Woodberry is an interesting area to explore. We especially enjoyed looking through the model for Struever Bros.' "green" housing development, Overlook Clipper Mill (even though it was far out of our price range). But really, apart from a few artists studios, there won't be much happening there on weekend days until the fabulous Woodberry Kitchen starts opening for brunch.
The real incentive for making this stop is Hampden. It's about a six-block walk uphill to the commercial strip on 36th Street, but it's well worth the exertion. With its eclectic combination of eateries and shops, The Avenue in Hampden is one of Baltimore's best walking tours. We topped it off with a fine bowl of chili with cheese and onions at Cafe Hon, a neighborhood landmark.
But it was time to move on to Harbor East, where you're more likely to find glitz than grit.
To get there, we transferred from the light rail to the Metro at the Lexington Market station - a block east of the actual market on depressing Howard Street. The Maryland Transit Administration doesn't make switching easy with its tiny, poorly placed signage, but it can be done. (Usually, the Metro is a block and a half away on Lexington Street, but because of a station renovation project, riders must walk an extra block to Saratoga Street.)
For Cindy, the subway ride was a treat. Though she has lived in Baltimore more than 30 years, she had never been aboard the Metro. It had never occurred to her that Baltimore transit could be fast.
The hidden jewel of the Metro is its Shot Tower station, from which riders can emerge right into the heart of Market Center, with its Port Discovery children's museum and numerous restaurants. From here, it's a short walk to the Power Plant and National Aquarium and a slightly longer trek to Harbor East, where urban explorers can find chic shops, trendy restaurants and the Landmark movie theater complex - President Street's answer to the Charles. Since parking in the area can set you back $10 or more, our MTA day passes were a good investment.
We topped off our culinary tour with a late lunch at the Lebanese Taverna, where the pizza with spinach was superb. We'll be back.
We could have taken the subway back to the light rail line, but by then darkness had fallen and we weren't too eager to wander around Howard Street. The walk back to Camden Yards wasn't too strenuous, and no sooner had we arrived than the light rail rolled in to take us back to North Linthicum.
We had a good time, even though our feet were sore. It was pleasant to cut loose from the bonds of driving, and we certainly got a workout. Since we pay for these systems, it was nice to get to use them.
Most of all, we were able to see the potential for Baltimore if it musters the will to build the Red Line. An east-west light rail line, with connections to the two existing lines, would open up Fells Point, Canton and Greektown as rail destinations. Who knows what could happen in West Baltimore? Could there be an African-American answer to the draw of Little Italy? With rail, you can begin asking that question.