The groundbreaking restaurants which were new ten or twenty years ago were only in my reach as a child because of my Grandpere and Grandmere, whose generosity often took the form of candlelit dinners and the brown sugar burn of a creme brûlée. The Inner Harbor - no Harbor East, yet - was within walking or bus distance, and every once in a while we'd make the trek down for Christmas shopping or a glance at the water. I remember that taking a cab home when it got dark was another ten, thirteen dollars on top of money we should not have spent.
But we lived in Bolton Hill, we were able to call a taxi, we benefited from our private and college educations and no one, despite our level of income, doubted our worth.
We were educated and white in Baltimore. We had access. We were poor, but we had that golden ticket to the sweet excesses of privilege.
I've just read a piece in The Baltimore Sun, "When did Baltimore become so chic?" At first, I was nodding along with descriptions of success. Oh yes, you can come here and use your arts degree and find a better chance at fame and recognition. You can see Maryland in Town and Country. You can go to Lululemon; you can be one of the "attractive young people."
If you have a golden ticket.
I don't want anybody to rag on Baltimore. This is my place, the history, the water, the filth, the dank smell of those deep sensory experiences and more. So when I see pieces in the news about my great city, I feel pleased, and proud - we're from here. Everyone should know how great this beautiful town on the bay really is.
And it is great. It's great if you have access - even the limited access I had as a child. You've got museums, cafés, concerts at Peabody; you've got artscape and the sour sweat smell of the summer; you've got the ducks in the harbor and the water taxi motoring in the wind.
You've got the Sip and Bite, and Trinacria, and church bells, and that silly restaurant in Canton in the shape of a cruise ship. You've got Thai food in Federal Hill, and Grand Central in Mt. Vernon, and Patisserie Poupon with its mural as you get onto the Jones Falls. There's the shot tower, and the Maryland Historical Society, and the streets whimpering nevermore.
It's true - it's all true. Baltimore is a wild, odorous, manic place.
A place that is, apparently, chic.
But for whom?
The fast encroachment of land deals, government tax breaks, my alma mater Johns Hopkins eating up whole neighborhoods - gentrification - is pushing out those people who don't have a golden ticket. Reading the Sun article, you'd think that we're all suddenly yogis, or people who buy high quality produce at Whole Foods, beer geeks and gourmands who wait in line for a taste of the unique, people who do those things and think this town is still "affordable."
It's not when you live in one of Baltimore's many "food deserts" - places with almost zero access to food. No adequate grocery stores, no adequate produce or health food but ample access to processed foods, higher rates of obesity and illness amongst those who don't have proper health care. No gym memberships to deal with high calorie carbohydrates, no trips to the yoga studio, no crossfit. Emergency room visits instead of a preventative checkup at the doctor's office.
It's not affordable when you live in a city with great academic institutions, and you don't qualify, because the schools you've been to never had enough money for textbooks and couldn't always keep on teachers because of a high rate of burnout. Hopkins isn't affordable if no one was there to make sure, make really sure, that you achieved everything you could - if the educational infrastructure didn't let you, a student with the ability to learn and a capacity for creativity, learn or create.
It isn't affordable if your parents were working far too hard for far too little, and didn't have any time to help with homework.
It's not affordable when big companies come in and steal your neighborhoods, pushing you further away from your work place. Pushing out your culture. Pushing you from your roots.
These aren't my experiences, but they are real Baltimore experiences. As I said, I had the privilege of my whiteness, my easily obtained education, my family members, my friends. And, again, even with all of those things, I couldn't afford this glimmering, chic Baltimore twenty years ago.
I was lucky. Not Lululemon lucky. But I know I was really, really lucky.
In the Sun piece, the one mention of anything other than economic and racial privilege was about The Wire. Paired with that reference is the word, ghetto.
I have no doubt that the author of this piece is an intelligent, well-intentioned young woman. She put together an interesting article for people who might be contemplating moving to the city. And yeah, if you have enough money to pick up and move, and if a Whole Foods and popular bars are within your reach, go for it! If you can move here and overcome that dreaded word, ghetto, Baltimore business and government and the police force will be very happy to have you.
No one is stopping you. Certainly not the people you're displacing.
Can I say though - don't come here for those things. Don't come here to look at faces or bank accounts or life stories which look like yours. Come here for the whispering alleys, the Constellation, the cheap lunch counters which serve breakfast at three in the morning. Come here to meet new people, different people. Come here to invest in the community as it stands - come to make a difference.
Come to Baltimore because for you it is affordable, and because your choices can fuel a local economy (the corner shop, the dry cleaners, the salon) and not a national economy (Target, Zips, Massage Envy). I'm not kidding - if you want to spend your life here, do it with integrity. Tutor. Be a big brother or big sister. Donate to your local library.
Don't use that word, ghetto, like it's a death knell.
Do something about it.
Give that golden ticket to someone else.
If we want Baltimore to be more than just chic - you know, cool, trendy, slightly overpriced for the typical resident - we need to rethink this process of gentrification. Baltimore will go on - it always does - for people who are privileged in one way or another. But how can we praise chicness above a basic human understanding of who our neighbors are? Of how our choices, from that lucky place of whiteness or money or education, affect the real lives of the real people who live here?
I don't care one single minute about my city being trendy or cool. I do care about the people who are forced out to cater to my privileged taste.
When did Baltimore become chic?
Baltimore became chic when it gave up on its people.