Is Baltimore beautiful? And if so, what parts? And what does “beautiful” actually mean?
Those questions are constantly present for those of us who live in the city and feel we have to justify that fact, both to ex-residents who hate it and want everyone else to, and to those who only know of Baltimore from crime shows and assume it’s basically haunted.
Those of us who live here and love it post photos of the things that explain the beauty we see in our backyard. But what if all of the pictures tend to be of the same backyard? This came up during a recent thread on Twitter, where residents debated why so many shots seem to be of the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton and other locations within what Lawrence Brown, former Morgan State University professor and author, terms the “White L.”
Those are the neighborhoods starting at the Harbor and heading into affluent, traditionally white areas that are surrounded by the “Black Butterfly,” traditionally Black neighborhoods in West and East Baltimore, fanning out like wings on a map. The names of the communities of the Butterfly, places like Edmondson Village, Sandtown-Winchester and Northwood, where I grew up, are seldom on those posters and other Baltimore trinkets you find at gift shops or fancy home decor stores. Neither are place like Hampden and Brewers Hill.
What I wish the people who made these posters and whatnot understood is that there is beauty in the Butterfly, too. Some of it is the same sort you find on those Twitter photo walks — parks, fountains and historic buildings. But then there are features that shine in a different way — colorful murals depicting famous African-Americans and rows of identical marble steps stretching out in a tableau. Flowering pots on concrete. Plaques dedicated to people you’ve never heard of.
In 2009, I gave an out-of-breath earful to a fellow half-marathoner as the Baltimore Running Festival wound around picturesque Lake Montebello because I overheard her remark, in shock, “Who would have known that this was in the city?”
“People who live here and learned to ride a bike around this lake, like me,” I huffed at her as I passed. The “I’ll have you know, MADAME!” was left unsaid, but she got it.
Brown said he’s seen tourism maps “with the areas in the Butterfly grayed out.” There, like the areas in the L that most wind up on Baltimore Pinterest, “beauty is cultivated,” meaning that effort and resources were poured into maintaining those shiny bricks and manicured trees. You can find them in the city’s urban forests, in Gwynn Falls/Leakin Park, or at Lake Montebello and Druid Hill Park
Shauntee Daniels, executive director of the Baltimore National Heritage Area, said her job is, basically, to “sell Baltimore, not just to visitors, but to people.” One of the barriers to people seeing that beauty is the city’s reputation for violence or decay. That’s not made up. But it’s not the only story.
“You see a spot on a window, and sometimes you don’t see past that spot,” Daniels said. “That’s what happens to Baltimore.”
Daniels was raised in Utah and has lived around the country, and admitted to not knowing much more about Baltimore than as a name “in bold letters in the beginning of a paragraph in my fourth-grade social studies textbook.” She came to understand this as the birthplace of Cab Calloway, whom she heard growing up in her grandmother’s house, and of Billie Holiday. And then she got it.
“This is sacred ground. I like the history and authenticity,” she said. Her favorite places here include anywhere that you can “see the whole city in all its glory.” And sometimes it’s just the streets themselves, “where you see the nostalgia of a time gone by, seeing these rowhouses all lined up. I’m in awe of that,” Daniels said.
That beauty can be green spaces, or sites like historic Black churches, like the 1837 Orchard Street Church, the Green Mount Cemetery or the murals in Sandtown-Winchester “that will just catch your eye. Driving down the street, they just pop out at you,” Daniels said. “Someone said, ‘I want to do this right there, so that the neighbors and people can walk by and see it.’ ”
Brown seconded appreciation for the murals, “so vibrant in color, that tell such a rich story,” he said. He also likes community gardens and urban farms, “these independent community efforts that are about sustainability and helping their community. It’s a remaking of space.”
But the most beautiful thing about Baltimore, they agreed, “is the people themselves,” Brown said, noting the fathers coming to pick up their enthusiastic kids at Union Baptist Head Start on Druid Hill Avenue or “the elders and people working together, the raucous laughter.”
“Baltimore has a very unique culture. It’s not a Philly or a D.C.,” Daniels added. “The people are authentic and genuine. They’re real. They will engage you. They have grit.”
Yeah, we do!
I love this city. All of it. Some of it has been taken care of better than other places, and some of it shines brighter. But to quote “Maryland, You Are Beautiful,” a long-forgotten late ’80s Maryland tourism jingle, “I see beautiful here in every place, and in every smile that greets me as I go from place to place.”
So to answer my own question, yes, Baltimore is beautiful. So much of it. It has so much potential. All of it. And I’d like to see more of us posting those photos, from the L to the Butterfly, of the beauty both natural and cultivated. Tag me on Instagram.
Let’s not keep all this beauty to ourselves.