Running Baltimore: Reflections on a 20-Mile Ramble Through the City

It was a snowy Sunday morning, and I wanted to run. So I put my shoes on, walked outside, and did just that. 20 miles later, I’d rambled all over Baltimore—and I was the better for it.

The beginning of the run was just like any other long run. I wasn’t so much focused on where I was, but where—and how fast—I was going. So I stuck with the familiar: I ran past downtown, into Federal Hill, through Riverside Park, and towards Fort McHenry. I saw no need to try anything new. After all, I was just trying to get in the miles. And it’s easiest to do that when you don’t have to think about the route you’re taking.

The snow was beautiful. It fell lightly, blanketing everything. But it wasn’t just the aesthetic that caught me. The snow also meant fewer cars—or, for that matter, people—were out. The streets were mine and mine alone. I reached Fort McHenry. It was too serene, almost eerily so. Just me (and the ducks) and the harbor. I took a photo:

A view of ducks and the Baltimore Harbor from Fort McHenry.

I was only 5 miles in. And my body was already frigid. I realized I needed to run the distance I’d just run three more times. Today’s run was turning out to be harder than I thought. I pressed on, partially retracing my steps before looping past Rash Field, around Inner Harbor, and out east into Fell’s Point. By this point, I’d clicked off 10 miles. I noticed that the fluffy snow had turned into a far-less-fluffy sleet. And I was tiring; my motivation was melting away just like the snow. But I continued.

Normally, I would’ve stuck with the familiar. It would’ve been easy—and completely natural—for me to simply turn around, retrace the first 10 miles that I’d just run, and eventually end up at home. But I was feeling restless, partly because I couldn’t bear the thought of running the exact same route, this time in reverse, in what was now a treacherous and unpleasant sleet. But part of it was something else: I wanted to experience something new.

So I ditched the familiar. I continued running east. Now Fell’s Point was behind me, and Canton was before me. I started making decisions by feel. I saw Hudson Street and turned onto it. Then I ran straight, not knowing how far I’d go before I’d turn next. At some point, I turned left and began heading north. Soon, Patterson Park was in front of me. This bothered me. I was back in familiar territory (that is, where I spent every Friday morning running hills with my November Project family). I continued north along the eastern edge of the park, but when I reached the northeast corner, I kept going.

I was now entering unfamiliar territory. Moreover—based on my limited knowledge of where I was heading in relation to Patterson Park—I was entering “dangerous” Baltimore. I didn’t know it then, but I ran right into and through the Ellwood Park neighborhood, which recently was named “statistically the most dangerous neighborhood in Baltimore City.” But the neighborhood seemed nothing like that.

True, the area wasn’t the most vibrant place I’d ever seen. There was evidence of urban decay everywhere. On some blocks, all I could see were boarded-up, decaying rowhouses. Some had fallen into such disrepair that you could see through the windows—and into the sky.

A decaying rowhouse in East Baltimore.

Elsewhere, I saw structures that were only shells of their former selves. For example, what I’ve now learned were the Ashley Apartments—an affordable housing complex that opened in 1986 to much fanfare but that, by the 1990s, had completely failed—stood out.

The Ashley Apartments in Broadway East.

Other buildings—and their remnant signage—hinted at more prosperous times of yore. I pictured “Phils Market” as the neighborhood’s former hub.

Phils Market, clearly no longer open.

But if you could look past some of the depressing facades, the community was really just like any other. Frustrated residents were shoveling snow off the sidewalks. Others were doing their Sunday grocery shopping. Basically every person I passed smiled and said hello. I smiled and said hello back.

At this point, I felt ashamed. I was ashamed that I’d never been into this part of the city and seen it for what it really was—an area that has all of the complications and complexities that make it like any other city neighborhood. It is far too easy to let the media and popular culture (read: The Wire) shape our perception of certain areas of Baltimore. And it is that perception-shaping that leads far too many people in this country to hold views that are as offensive as this person’s view of the area. Admittedly, I’d partially fallen victim to it.

I was also ashamed that we could let so much of this city fall into such disrepair. Baltimore, after all, was one of the grandest, most glorious cities in America. In one writer’s words, Baltimore “was an important city when Washington was still swampland.”

More importantly, I was ashamed that certain residents bore a disproportionate share of the burdens of that decay. Those living in East Baltimore very much live in a second America. In the words of David Simon, “It’s astonishing how little we [that is, viable and nonviable Baltimore] have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.” We all should be sharing, and not cordoning off, the burdens we face. And, right now, that’s not the case.

But I also began feeling more hopeful. As I pitter-pattered west toward downtown, I saw beauty in bleakness. Somewhere along North Avenue, I stumbled across this gigantic mural, my favorite find of the day (I now know that this is one of 20 love murals painted by the Baltimore Love Project, which “expresses love by connecting people and communities across Baltimore City through love themed murals.”):

A mural by the Baltimore Love Project. Goes well with Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure for Love”.

Then there were instances of what I call “metamorphosis.” A street artist converted what would otherwise be a depressing facade into a colorful, impressionistic scene:

An empty rowhouse doesn’t have to be meaningless.

Other murals had a more educational bent. Like this one:

I didn’t know Maryland was named in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria.

And then there were the hortatory murals. I found this one particularly powerful:

“Make a living not a killing”

If there’s one thing I took away from these murals, it’s this: art matters. Art teaches. Art challenges. Art inspires. And—perhaps most important—art gives hope.

The miles were clicking by. I looked down at my watch: I’d gone 15 miles without even noticing! I realized this was no longer a run—it was a journey of discovery.

And the discoveries didn’t end in East Baltimore. Closer to home, I stumbled across some oddities. Like this giant mural of an old Korean man with strange Korean gibberish as a caption:

The Korean text says something along the lines of “Open wall Baltimore Z. Remember the future.”

But I was looking forward to home now. Mile 19 was behind me, and I was feeling weary. In line with my own shift, what was once sleet had turned into freezing rain (the entire frontside of my windbreaker was now a layer of ice). I counted down the last mile. It seemed endless. Finally, I made it to 20 miles (you can see my route here). Two and a half hours after I’d started, I was home.

I set out to run this morning. But my morning ended up being much more than just a run. With a single spontaneous decision, I turned what could’ve been an endlessly boring run into one of the best looks at Baltimore I’ve had. I very much hope I’ll do this again and see more of this great city.