Baltimore, The Greatest City in America bench

“Baltimore: Actually, I like it,” reads a bumper sticker created by local artist Julia Smith.

The slogan sums up many of the responses from the 1,002 city residents who took part in a recent poll commissioned by The Baltimore Banner. Despite the city’s struggles — and there are many — there is some strange magic to Charm City that pulls us back here. For some, it is the diversity of the city, or the exuberant arts scene. For others, it is stately architecture, a vibrant patch of forest or the waterways rippling through the city. And for most, there is a sense that Baltimore is unmistakably home, regardless of its flaws.

“It’s like that cousin you have who is really effed up, but you still love him,” Marshall Bell, 53, said of the city. “You invite him to the cookout, but you don’t let him in the house unless somebody is accompanying him.”

Bell, a business and public relations consultant who lives in Auchentoroly Terrace, was one of the respondents to the Baltimore Now poll, which was conducted in May by Goucher College Poll. He grew up in Randallstown, but moved to the area near Druid Hill Park after graduating from college in 1991 and has lived in West Baltimore ever since. Bell spoke admiringly of the beautiful architecture in his neighborhood: marble entranceways, high ceilings, parquet floors. His family has deep roots in the city; his late father, Lawrence Bell Sr., was a prominent dentist. His brother, Lawrence Bell Jr., is a former president of the Baltimore City Council.

“Baltimore, especially Black Baltimore, has its own unique character. There’s a sense of sorrow, but also a sense of pride in being a Black Baltimorean. There is a shared history and a shared experience. Everybody has somebody who was lost to the streets, who got murdered or died because of drugs. But also everyone knows what it’s like to go to AFRAM or the Stone Soul Picnic,” Bell said in a phone interview. “Baltimore has a survivor feeling to it. There’s so much bad, but there’s a real love for the community.”

The poll respondents, who were contacted at random on cellphones and landlines, were asked to describe what they liked about living in the city. Many spoke earnestly and in strong terms about their fondness for Baltimore. “I love being part of this city. It has great potential and great spirit,” said one person. “It’s beautiful and alive.”

“There is inspiration for the creative, and people in Baltimore live honestly and out loud,” said another. “There is no pretense in the city. What you see is what you get.”

Several respondents pined for a past when they felt more safe. “I am scared to go out by myself at night now,” one said. “I love living in the city, but I’m worried about my children growing up here because of the high crime,” answered another.

Some waxed nostalgic about past mayors: Sheila Dixon, Kurt Schmoke, William Donald Schaefer. Others spoke of police corruption, crumbling schools, a lack of affordable housing and a profusion of litter. A few couldn’t think of much they liked about the city.

“Just that my family is here,” answered one. “I can’t think of anything else.”

Another said, “I’m here because my family, job, etc. is here. I wouldn’t recommend moving here though. It’s almost lawlessness.”

More than one person responded that there was nothing they liked: “It’s a dump,” one said.

Yet many said they found hope in the ways in which Baltimoreans collaborate to solve these problems. “For me, it’s the people and the way we identify and connect with each other in life-giving ways,” Mark Parker, 40, the pastor of Breath of God Lutheran Church in Highlandtown, said in a phone interview. Parker spoke of the “beauty, strength and grace” of the Latino immigrant community in Southeast Baltimore, as well as of the more established immigrants from Ukraine and Greece. “These are cultural connections that people are really proud to share with their neighbors. There’s a lot of pride and a lot of people working to strengthen their community.”

Parker grew up in Otterbein, the son of parents who bought and refurbished a home through the famed dollar home program. He and his wife, Christine Myers Parker, the pastor of Northeast Baltimore’s Epiphany Lutheran Church, knew they wanted to raise their children in the city. The family lives in Highlandtown, near the church he leads.

“I loved my childhood in the city and, in some key ways, my kids’ experience of growing up in the city is way better than mine. From a really early age, they have a sense of being part of an interconnected community that is much more racially and ethnically diverse than the community I grew up in,” Parker said. “Our neighbors are Black, white, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islanders, immigrants and refugees from all over the world.”

For Luke, 11, and Sarah, 8, Patterson Park is the center of the world. The children, who attend Patterson Park Public Charter School, spend recess, evenings and weekends at the park. They swim at the park pool in the summer, ice skate in winter and have celebrated many birthdays at the park.

Nick Greer, 42, of Northeast Baltimore’s Beverly Hills neighborhood, is also grateful for the experiences that his 7-year–old daughter, Beatrice, has growing up in the city. He and his wife, Amy Greer, arrived in Baltimore in 2003, planning to stay for five years while she completed her doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, but wound up putting down roots.

“In our neighborhood, there is a lot of diversity across race and age,” said Greer, an executive with the nonprofit Thread, which links struggling high school students with a committed team of mentors and supporters. “Raising our daughter in a community that doesn’t always look like her is important to us.”

Greer said he enjoyed the greenery that surrounds their neighborhood. The family often walks around Lake Montebello or tosses stones in Herring Run. “You can get into a space where you don’t feel like you’re in a city,” he said.

Ronald Thompson has seen the city grow and change, stumble and stagger ahead in his 82 years. He grew up in South Baltimore, worked for decades as a crane operator at Bethlehem Steel and now drives a courtesy shuttle at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital. The Reservoir Hill resident has five kids and “a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

“When I was coming up, when school was out, we’d play baseball in the morning and go swimming at the YMCA in the evening,” he said. “We had rec centers to go to and trips to go on. Of course, when I came up, there were a lot of places we couldn’t go due to segregation.”

Thompson recalls the days when the Inner Harbor was a blighted industrial area, before becoming a tourist attraction. He remembers the first AFRAM festival. But he has seen unfortunate changes, as well. “What I don’t like about Baltimore is the crime problem. And the city is not as clean as it used to be,” he said. “When we came up, we had block cleanups. We didn’t have blighted areas and boarded-up houses.”

Yet Baltimore remains the place Thompson wants to be. “This is the only place where I’ve really lived all my life,” he said. “This has always been home.”

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