Leslie Streeter

I was recently chatting about what brings Baltimore natives like me back to the imperfect, complicated but still beautiful city we love after so many years away.

There are the usual deterrents — crime, racism and systematic injustices — baked so intricately into the city’s firmament. But also what draws us despite all of that is that still, perhaps improbably, there is enough good, enough love, enough history. Also, that there is hope.

This sentiment was ringing in my ear this week when I read what you, my fellow Baltimoreans, told The Baltimore Banner, in our Baltimore Now poll about the direction of the city, about what you think of this imperfect place. And I’m not gonna lie — a lot of it is painful.

These weren’t snap judgments from newcomers, either. Sixty-four percent of those who answered were born here, with 71% living here at least 20 years. The majority of approximately a thousand of you who answered, a sobering 67%, said the city is headed in the wrong direction in every possible way. Schools. Crime. Politicians.

Given all of this, a lot of you, 31%, are considering leaving within the next five years. I’ll be honest: As someone who moved back to town less than two years ago, that one made the hairs on my neck stand up a little bit and caused me to question my own decision. “Oh, man, what did I do?”

But another answer on the poll resonated even more strongly with me, and it is why I uprooted my family from the sunny breeze of West Palm Beach, Florida and returned to the swampy, concrete pleasures of Charm City. When asked to describe their outlook on the future of Baltimore City, with choices ranging from “Very pessimistic” (19%) to “Very optimistic” (17%), most respondents, or 36%, picked “Optimistic.”

Hold up a minute. Why in the world would the same people who are, as we speak, checking Zillow listings in places that aren’t here, who think the city is going downhill, have any sort of optimism about where it’s going? I can’t answer for anyone but myself.

In the summer of 2020, I was months into the fear and uncertainty of the nascent pandemic and the churning of racial reckoning after coming off a series of unpaid furloughs from the Palm Beach Post, where I’d worked for 18 years. Everything seemed shaky. Off-kilter.

And when your kilter is the most off, it usually seems like a good time to come home. Home, however weird, means roots. It means familiarity — of food, friends and family. It seems like a good place to start over.

To have hope.

I write this from The Baltimore Banner newsroom at the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor, near where I spent a few nervous teenage Sunday nights trying to look cool at the former P.T. Flagg’s nightclub. From the window I see Harborplace, where I made money to pay for junior prom at Baltimore City College high school by singing corny, candy-based song parodies at The Fudgery. Almost everyone I knew worked at the Harbor at least once growing up, and I’m gobsmacked but proud to say I am working here once more.

Nobody is more surprised about that than me; I was once certain that I would never move back. I wanted something else, something farther away and not on the Number 3 bus line, despite a deep love of Baltimore.

I got out, but something about this place pulled me back in. Not like the Mafia as much as an auntie who offers you one more warm piece of pie you insist you don’t want, but totally do. And it’s waiting for you for when the time is right.

It’s like I’m living a Blacker, Baltimorean version of a Hallmark movie where the heroine returns unexpectedly to her hometown to save the family maple syrup factory or apple orchard. In my case, I’ve come home to save myself. And, as a lifestyle columnist, I’m going to write about what makes us, well, us. What we eat. Where we spend time. How we feel about pit beef. What we want for ourselves and our children, and what we want people to know about that. The real stuff. The hopeful stuff.

I first started writing about life as a Baltimorean as the features editor for City College’s newspaper, The Collegian. In 10th grade, alumnus and then-Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker came to speak about his career and I thought: “Wait ... someone will pay you to write about your opinion about stuff? Like, that’s a real job? I’m IN!”

After graduating from what’s now the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, I wrote my way up and down the East Coast, hoping for a glamorous job as an entertainment reporter in L.A. or New York. I didn’t make it to either of those big cities, but ended up with a pretty good gig in West Palm Beach as a pop culture columnist for The Palm Beach Post. My life was rosy. I wrote about cocktails, hanging out with celebrities and my travels to Vegas and New York on the company dime. I was headed places, and Baltimore didn’t seem to be one of them.

But even when I didn’t realize it, Charm City was whispering to me, giving me hints about a future I couldn’t wrap my brain around yet. I married a guy named Scott who I knew from high school, but 21 years after graduation and in Florida, where we were both working, we reconnected. That’s where we planned to raise our son, who, in a decidedly Baltimorean act, we named Brooks Robinson after the legendary Orioles third baseman.

We weren’t avoiding Baltimore. We vacationed here to visit family, went on road trips to Orioles games, and half-seriously talked of opening a food truck that sold pit beef, snowballs and lake trout near the beach where we lived in Florida — Baltimore South. Just like home, but with palm trees. What else did we need? We had each other.

Until we didn’t.

My Scotty died in 2015, unexpectedly, of a heart attack, in our home in Lake Worth, just outside West Palm Beach, leaving me a widow and a single mom at age 44. My mother moved in to co-parent. The traditional newspaper business continued a downward spiral into terribleness; my dream job suddenly unstable. I thought that “Black Widow,” the memoir I wrote about Scott and Brooks, death, and keeping my family together, was going to propel me into a new career. Then COVID literally shut down the world and my burgeoning book tour with it. The book, which I put my whole soul into, reached who it needed in our time of grief, but my dreams of making a living solely as an author didn’t happen.

My decision to move wasn’t just about book sales. Florida’s response to COVID seemed incoherent. And the unfolding turmoil of the national response to the police killings of several Black people made me feel unsafe.

Suddenly, palm trees couldn’t compete with brick houses, Old Bay and a diverse city where my son saw people who looked like him. So back to Baltimore I went.

After six months of a corporate communications job and a year freelancing parenting and arts stories for The Washington Post and snarky “Bachelorette” recaps for The Seattle Times, I got the call about a columnist job at this new thing called The Baltimore Banner. Soon I was filling out insurance paperwork and getting a parking pass.

So it looks like my Hallmark life is still happening, and I finally get to take all my life experience, my love of storytelling, and every single bit of my Baltimore and use them to tell the story of us — including that hope that keeps so many of us here and brings others back. And maybe my columns will continuously remind you all why, for all of its problems, you’re still here in this city that smells like spices and saltwater and feels like home.

I really hope I do.

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