Baltimore a patchwork of little cities

Posted June 11, 2009, at 9:08 p.m.

On the day I arrived on the busy streets of Baltimore, my first impression was of tall, crumbly brick buildings lining the street like old men sitting around a domino table, their painted doorways watching the traffic go by. I breathed in the muggy, salt-water smell of a Southern port in summertime. A bicyclist wound his way home through the streets beside cars and motorcycles; a small girl played hopscotch in an alleyway. I instantly was overwhelmed by the commotion of people, but also filled with curiosity about their lives.

Baltimore is the largest city in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C.-metropolitan area of approximately 8.1 million residents. Historically a working-class port town, Baltimore sometimes has been dubbed a “city of neighborhoods,” with more than 300 identified districts traditionally occupied by distinct ethnic groups. The result is a patchwork quilt of a city.

When I leave my apartment and walk west, I quickly find myself in the heart of the renovated historic waterfront district of Fells Point. The cobbled streets once were frequented predominantly by sailors on shore leave; Fells Point was a shipbuilding and commercial center. Now, ice cream shops, bookstores and pubs vie for space along the main street, but the feeling of an old-fashioned bustling maritime center remains.

Moving farther north from the waterfront, you find Baltimore’s Latino population. Suddenly you feel as if you are in another city — a different but equally culturally rich place. Hispanic-American tiendas and restaurantes (corner stores and restaurants) advertise lunch specials in Spanish as well as in English.

Farther south and east, the scene changes swiftly again: The Canton neighborhood is a more industrial waterfront neighborhood, with two marinas and a public boat launch. Beyond that is the aptly named Greektown. Each neighborhood feels like its own small town — tiny cities within a city.

Almost anywhere you go is the comforting, briny breeze from the ocean, reminding you of the border that holds this patchwork quilt together: Baltimore Harbor.

I listen carefully to the way locals say “Baltimore.” It sounds more like “Bawlamer,” or “Baldimore.” I practice it, trying hard not to say the “t” as precisely as I would like. Likewise, “Maryland” isn’t pronounced locally the way I would have imagined. Here it sounds more like “Mair-lin,” or even shorter, “Merlin.”

“That’s ‘Bawlmorese,’ hon,” the woman at the library told me as I filled out my library card application and tried to repeat her pronunciations. “You’ll learn it,” she said with a laugh.

Walking home, I keep my eyes and ears wide open, watching the neighborhoods change as I navigate the slanting concrete sidewalks. Sometimes I feel almost as though I am back in Mexico, listening to comfortable Spanish between two women waiting for a bus. In other blocks, I am reminded of Maine, as a couple of young men in tall rubber boots unload the day’s ocean catch from a truck. For several streets, everything I see is new to me, and I listen hard to the way the locals twist their words — that “Bawlmorese” I’m trying to pick up.

“Buenos dias”

“Mornin’, hon.”

Nearing dinnertime I turn the corner back into my alleyway. People are home from work, sitting on their front steps and making small conversation. Our houses are all connected to each other, with no space in between them; I could knock Morse code messages on my neighbor’s walls. I wave shyly at my new neighbors as I unlock my front door.

More than anything, I’m surprised by how friendly Baltimoreans are. Despite the undeniable reality that this city — like many big cities — has problems with crime, an attitude of sociability pervades the many communities here. Strangers strike up conversations while waiting in line, and it’s not unusual to greet everyone you pass on the streets where you live.

Last week, a Bangor Daily News reader e-mailed me about that Baltimore neighborhood feeling. “I was born and raised in Baltimore,” she wrote. “Despite its urban nature, you can still experience small-town friendliness.” She recently had returned to Baltimore for a visit, and after just two days of taking the same train to Union Station, she was invited by the woman selling tickets to join a weekly knitting group at a local restaurant.

Inside my kitchen, I can still hear the neighborhood stirring around me. The children one street down from me play tag on the sidewalk. Someone slams a door, shouting that they’ll be back in half an hour. Two blocks from me, at the firehouse, a siren whines to life before disappearing off into the city.

I am in the middle of a veritable anthill of life — the many-faceted, patchwork quilt of Baltimore.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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