Baltimore: Because it’s there?

Like, I imagine, most British people, my only knowledge of Baltimore comes from The Wire. This – combined with it having highest homicide rate of any major US city – hardly makes it seem like the most attractive place to visit for a day.

Still, as it’s just an hour away from Washington DC, a trip to the self-described ‘Charm City’ had made its way onto my funemployment to-do list.

Some people climb Everest ‘because it’s there.’ I went to Baltimore, because it’s there.

The simplest way there is by train. My experience of rail travel in the US is of past luxury and present neglect: walking through the monumental opulence of DC’s Union station, before stepping onto a knackered old train.

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A smooth, if unremarkable journey, arrives into Penn station – a little way from the city centre.

Unsure quite what to expect, it turns out the right side of the tracks in Baltimore is very pleasant. The fittingly charming Charles Street divides the city east-west, and runs south to the Inner Harbor.

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My first, and unscheduled, stop was to climb Baltimore’s Washington monument (which predates it’s more famous DC counterpart). The view from the top gives a sense of the different parts of the city: the beautiful historic buildings close by; tall, modern commercial blocks downtown; housing projects outside the centre.

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The helpful monument curator also pointed me to two other local landmarks.

First, the Peabody conservatory – a music school which contains a most unexpectedly beautiful, multi-story, working library.

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Like many charitable enterprises that share the name – including a housing trust in London – this was founded George Peabody. Peabody had quite the life. He grew up poor in Massachusetts, before making his money in trade in Baltimore. He moved to London and made even more money, founding the bank which became JP Morgan.

At the same time as becoming the farther of philanthropy, he got kicked out of the Reform Club when his home stage of Maryland defaulted on its debt, kept a mistress in Brighton, part-funded the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, and gave himself gout. When you’re tired of London…

The other local landmark was also founded by wealthy residents from Baltimore’s rich past. Father and son William and Henry Walters made their money on whisky and railroads – and spent their money acquiring an eclectic mix of artwork from around the world. The young Walters attached a gallery to their house and eventually gifted that plus his collection to the city as a free museum.

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Among the stuffed alligators and medieval Flemish weaponry – it is unclear how much of their profits the Walters drank – my favourite object was this 13th century Parisian stained glass window.

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The explanatory plaque reads:

‘St Vincent of Saragossa was martyred in Gaul (France) in A.D. 304 under Emperor Diocletian. St Vincent’s arms and legs are locked into a cross-shaped rack, while men tear at his flesh with iron combs. A hand at the upper left commands the torture. St. Vincent suffers calmly.’

It reminds me of Brexit.

Too much culture makes you hungry, so I headed to Lexington market for lunch. A few blocks away from the past luxury of Charles Street, there are more signs of homelessness and Baltimore’s subsequent decline. Still, according to Google the best crab cakes in Maryland are found in the market, at Faidley’s. One patron apparently liked them so much he had his ashes scattered on the floor. I doubt I’ll be going that far.

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But they were excellent: a golden brown ball of large, sweet, flaky crab meat, loosely held together with a slightly spicy sauce. This was (I think) my visit’s only crossover with The Wire: early in the show, McNulty wins the favour of sceptical cops with four Faidley’s crab cakes and 12 beers. It would work on me.

After lunch I headed to Baltimore’s major historical attraction, Fort McHenry. A typically twee video explains the fort’s story.

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In 1814, Britain and America are at war. Fresh from defeating Napolean and torching DC, the British fancy a crack at Baltimore. But blocking the approach to the city lies Fort McHenry, manned by rookie American troops and plucky Maryland volunteers. The British fleet bombards the fort, trying to clear the way to move their guns within range of the city. Watching from an American ‘truce ship’ with the British fleet is Maryland lawyer, negotiator, and part-time poet Francis Scott Key. The morning after a night’s heavy bombardment – ‘by dawn’s early light’ – Key spies in the distance the stars and stripes still flying above the fort. The British attack had been repelled. Before returning to the city, he scribbles down a poem. This becomes The Star Spangled Banner, and in time, the US national anthem.

‘So the Americans even have the British to thank for their national anthem,’ I thought. As the video finishes, the anthem’s familiar tune starts playing. The projector screen rolls up – revealing through a large window the star spangled banner, still flying proudly over Fort McHenry. ‘PLEASE STAND’ read the signs by the window. Everyone does – me included. Adding yet further insult, I then became the accidental British extra to a middle school’s lesson in American patriotic history.

Last laugh to the US, then.

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The exhibition in the fort proper explains its later history. After the simple tale of American heroes and British baddies comes the fort’s more complicated Civil War story.

Two thousand prisoners were kept in the fort, including one of Key’s grandsons – Frank Key Howard. Though opposed to Southern secession, he also opposed the use of force to bring them back into the Union. His Baltimore newspaper editorials attacked the Lincoln administration, so he was imprisoned and his newspaper closed. At the same time, the Union commander of the fort turned the guns that had once protected the city from the British to point at Baltimore itself. He had orders from Lincoln to use them if needed to keep Maryland in the Union.

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After the fort I headed back to the Inner Harbor – the heart of tourist Baltimore. There are lots of ships and other such things to see there, but all I really wanted was a cold beer. As ever, there was an Irish pub (why are there never any English pubs abroad?) close by. And at $3 a pint, the beer was cheaper than anywhere in DC, with a great view.

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Putting it bluntly, Baltimore was a lot nicer than I expected. It’s rich in history, and with plenty to do today. I may have gone simply because it was there, but I look forward to going back.

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