Kate teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at UMBC. She has been riding a bicycle almost every day for eight years and writes regularly about what she sees at her blog, and in a regular column for the Baltimore City Paper, Field Tripping. She also helps lead walking tours about Baltimore’s LGBTQ history.
What I’ve learned from biking around Baltimore is that this place shoves its shiny new tourist traps right up against the scars left by the disinvestment that made those traps possible.
You would think that between ebay, the library, etsy, Amazon, someone would still have a 1990s Baltimore Lonely Planet guide. This proved not to be the case. I resorted to reaching out to the folks at Lonely Planet itself; the version never existed, because a Baltimore-specific title does not exist, now or ever. Baltimore does, however, make appearances in the Washington, DC guide from that year. Well, one thing that hasn’t changed in over 15 years is Baltimore getting treated like DC’s red-headed stepchild.
I swallowed my distaste and flipped past DC and Virginia, all the way to page 439, to find their ideas for some side trips to the real center of it all: Baltimore.
For visitors who stick to the high traffic Inner Harbor areas, or who just pop in by freeway for an Orioles or Ravens game, Baltimore is a commercial for itself, all sports and aquariums and family fun. Head a mile or two on a bike in any direction, though, and it’s an entirely different story. Baltimore is also blocks upon blocks of vacant homes, a few homesteaders bravely holding things down. It’s alleyway car washes and tabletop snoball stands.
It’s the last few public housing complexes that haven’t yet gone the way of cookie cutter “mixed income” development and gas stations selling lake trout and bus stops that look like town halls. It’s neighborhoods like the one where Freddie Gray was killed--folks out and about amidst the heavy police presence that the city is banking on to make “us” safe. Baltimore is so many different cities overlapping in the same time and space, so many different sorts of lives lived here. The tensions between these different Baltimore’s are real, partly the result of city resources flowing from neighborhoods where Baltimoreans are struggling to make lives in the context of postindustrial restructuring to the central tourist core that city leaders are banking on to pull us all out of this mess.
That contradiction between Baltimore and the tourist Baltimore is an old one. I went back to the 1990s to see what the hard sell looked like then to compare to now, almost 20 years later, to see if much has changed.
WE TOOK a Lonely Planet tourist guide to DC (featuring Baltimore) from 1997 and tried to use it in 2015. What has changed? What has stayed the same? We've scoured the pages and walked the maps. Here's what we found.
KATE Drabinski: Baltimore is still struggling to be more than an affordable place for DC commuters to live--and it’s true that you can buy a mansion in Roland Park for the price of a tiny condo in Capitol Hill. Never mind that DC let itself burn back in the War of 1812 while Baltimore triumphed, stopping the British in their tracks and offering up the occasion for Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner, never mind that Baltimore—not DC—is the birthplace of American railroading. Plus, we’ve got The Wire. Sigh.
I start my tour with a bike ride down Guilford Avenue, the eastern-most street in what many call Baltimore’s “white spine,” a few-avenue north/south conduit stretching several miles from the Inner Harbor up to the Guilford neighborhood, home of one of the city’s wealthiest—and whitest—populations. I’m just east of it, biking alongside I83, which cuts through the heart of the city, a scar of urban renewal. A few blocks later, and I’m at the Inner Harbor, what, in 1997, was “the revitalized heart of Baltimore—now a major tourist attraction including the waterfront promenade, museums, tour boats, historic ships, and the National Aquarium.” This is still true, at least on paper, and since 1997, Baltimore has continued to pour money into the tourist center with hopes money will trickle down to the people who just live here.
I lock up my bike and head past the workers taking out trash and smoking cigarettes and enter Harborplace, still the food court it was in 1997. It’s fairly quiet, probably because it’s a weekday afternoon, but the 5 Guys upstairs is bustling—the Cheesecake Factory doesn’t exactly cater to the people who actually work down here.
The Inner Harbor is a historic seaport, tourist attraction, and a city landmark. Baltimore’s World Trade Center on the right.
I choke down some fries and head outside to the National Aquarium. The guidebook calls this a “fairly innovative aquarium.” If the massive complex featuring a dolphin pool, a recreation of the Amazon rainforest, jellyfish walls, a shark tank, and fish I thought only existed in cartoons only gets a “fairly” innovative label, well, I’m not sure what Lonely Planet’s expecting. It’s a place you go to once, unless you have a very heavy wallet; the 1997 $11.75 ticket price is now up to $39.95—an over 300% increase. A membership more than pays for itself in just three visits, but three visits is actually kind of a lot of times to go to the aquarium if you don’t have kids, so I decide to hold onto my cash and turn to the east to head over to the Maryland Science Center.
I take slow walk that way, along the water, past Baltimore’s World Trade Center, which will let you head to the Top of the World for a comparative bargain — $6. There are speedboat tours, pirate boat tours, classy dinner cruises, the obligatory Ripley’s Believe it Or Not (Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope strung from here across the harbor a few years ago), and ubiquitous custard and smoothie places. I pass a couple of bike cops leaning over their handlebars, laughing—a far cry from the National Guard troops who recently filled this space with guns, empty water bottles, and take out boxes. Those cops have been replaced by bike cops in shorts and polo shirts who seem fairly innocuous, until you remember it was cops on bikes who arrested Freddie Gray in the first place. I’m reminded again that whether police make you feel more or less safe has everything to do with which Baltimore you’re visiting or living in. I keep that in mind as I make my way around the harbor, saying my how you doin’s to the other pedestrians wandering by the many ways to spend your money down here. Baltimore sits on the border between north and south, but in many ways it’s a southern city, and we greet each other. But not here—these are tourists, and they don’t generally give the head-nod I expect in other neighborhoods.
The Science Center is a silver behemoth at the southwest corner of the Inner Harbor. David Harvey has argued that it was built like this as a bulwark against the poor Black folks in the neighborhoods north of here, a kind of fortress in case of riots. Like the rest of the Inner Harbor, there’s something ugly underneath the shine, bread and circuses as the rest of the city struggles against the disinvestment necessary to build Baltimore’s t-shirt economy. I mean, they built the first light rail line at the same time they installed the new baseball stadium down here, and it goes right there--our public transit is as much about enabling people from the suburbs to get downtown for a ballgame as it is anything to do with actually moving people around their own city. In 1997 an adult ticket to the Science Center ran “a rather expensive” $9, including an IMAX movie. Today it would cost me $20.95, plus an extra $4 for the movie– too rich for my blood. I wish the City Life Museums were still here—there were eight different sites, some still open, but the Peale Museum is closed now. It was the oldest public museum in the United States, but apparently it was no match for the pedal boats and cotton candy. The ticket prices have changed since 1997, and a whole lot of attractions have closed, but other than that, Baltimore is still pouring its money in this neighborhood, hoping this is the way to jumpstart the heart of the city. I head back to my bike wondering again who this city is for.
Then and now prices
Admission to National Aquarium
Featuring more than 20,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals.
Admission to Science Center
Includes three floors of exhibits, a planetarium, an observatory and IMAX theater.
A mile or so further east, and I’m in Fells Point, a historic shipyard and recreational pier. I lock up my bike and stroll, as the guidebook encourages me to do. “Most people come here to escape the suburbs,” it tells me, and I’m struck again by the assumption that this neighborhood is only for tourists or people from across the county line. Unwittingly, Lonely Planet gets it right: these are the neighborhoods preserved in the hopes of bringing people who aren’t already down here for a visit.
I83 was originally set to go through here, breaking through what has been an active maritime community since the 1700s, but community organizers, including Barbara Mikulski, got that thing rerouted and Fells Point labeled a historic district. As a result, Fells Point, unlike the Inner Harbor, retains a sense of actual charm. Its cobblestone streets (actually, it’s Belgian block, but it’s what you think cobblestone looks like) and row houses look like they’ve been facing hard weather off the water for a hundred years.
Newer development has been built in brick and aged to fit in, and the wharves are still there, even if they host weddings now instead of ship loading. I take a seat in Market Square to people watch, as my guidebook recommends, and they’re right—it’s a great way to spend some time. There are tourists, yes, but there are also the people tourists bring: the financially challenged requesting a hand, the busker looking for a place to set up, and service industry types heading to their service industry jobs– so many lives intersecting right here, so many invisible to each other.
I’ve worked up an appetite at this point, so I follow the Lonely Planet’s advice to Bertha’s for the “large bowls of mussels served with a choice of sauces.” (I mean, who doesn’t want a choice of sauces?) Bertha’s opened in 1972, and it is as much a tourist lunch spot today as it was when Lonely Planet advised me to head there. It is also one of those rare tourist restaurants that locals hit too, as evidenced by the green EAT BERTHA’S MUSSELS bumper stickers you see on cars everywhere. It’ll be $15 for mussels on this day (up from $8 in 1997), so I decide to just grab a quick snack at the Broadway Market, open during construction, and save my big eating for the next neighborhood.
I next head west, back through Harbor East and just north of the Inner Harbor. Lombard Street’s got a bus/bike lane, new since 1997, I’m quite sure, and I speed along with traffic all the way to MLK Boulevard. MLK has three--in spots, four--lanes going in either direction, separated by a median. The speed limit’s 35, but it is built for speeds much higher than that; depending on traffic, drivers push that limit to the limit. There are few places for pedestrians to cross and long waits at red lights for cars crossing either way. This is another of urban renewal’s scars, effectively cutting West Baltimore off from the rest of the city. The contact zones that exist in Fells Point and even the Inner Harbor, those places where people of different races and classes might mingle on accident, they’re rarer over here. The city purposely stopped investing in neighborhoods in West Baltimore as it planned to build other highways here, even cutting off basic city services like water and trash pick up as neighborhoods emptied out. We ended up with a freeway to nowhere and a bunch of neighborhoods that look like what you think Baltimore looks like when you watch The Wire.
SoWeBo. Photo: J.M. Giordano
And then there’s SoWeBo. Back in 1997, this was “a developing bohemian district…something like a clone of New York City’s SoHo.” SoWeBo is just west of downtown, so perhaps that proximity suggested to Lonely Planet that it would have enough “downtown” on it to keep it economically viable while being far enough away to keep the cred necessary to be “SoHo.” So, was/is it? Well, sort of. Like much of Baltimore, this neighborhood bears the marks of promised rebirth without the rebirth itself. But people are still here, getting their things from the market, grabbing a cup of coffee, visiting the busy barber shop across the street.
HOLLINS MARKET is here and thriving, and the corner of Hollins and Arlington still hosts a coffee shop—it’s Cups now, not The Corner, but I happily settled into their tiny air conditioned back room for a turkey wrap and an iced tea. It was a quiet day, like much of Baltimore in the summertime, and I had the place to myself. Gypsy’s Café is gone, as is Mencken’s Cultured Pearl, another cafe which closed in 1998. The Mencken House is closed to visitors, too—in 1997, along with the rest of the City Life museums when the tourist dollars didn’t pour in as expected. You can build it, but that doesn’t mean they will come—though the street sign pointing the way to it is still up. I rode past it on my bike, waved my hello, and kept on pedaling. I was down here a few weeks before for SoWeBo Arts and Music Fest, one of the happening-est festivals in the city, and it was crowded crowded, but that’s probably not enough to get the neighborhood in a new Lonely Planet--it doesn’t make it on their website for Baltimore today.
Rent Per Month
1 bedroom apartment
in city centre
outside city centre
Source: City Data
As for other featured stops: the B&O Railroad Museum (↑) is still here, chugging away, and you can tour the outside trains without ponying up $18 for an adult ticket—another 300% increase from 1997. The Poe House is open again after a short closure for renovation, and at $5 a ticket, it’s still affordable. The first time I visited I got a bit lost, until a man on his stoop pointed the way: “It’s down there, just a block.” White ladies on bicycles are headed to one place in this neighborhood, I heard him saying, and he was right.
PRICES THAN AND NOW
Baltimore City Conservatory
Baltimore Museum of Art
I ended my day heading back north on my bike to take Lonely Planet’s “North Baltimore” tour. The book doesn’t split these into Northeast and Northwest Baltimore, even though the sites they list are miles and (racial) worlds apart, a reminder that neighborhood boundaries are often made by developers. They’ve got me heading north to the BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF ART, two and a half miles west to the MARYLAND ZOO IN DRUID HILL PARK, and then another seven and a half miles east to the GREAT BLACKS IN WAX MUSEUM. That’s a lot of mileage, and more than that, it’s like traveling through entirely different worlds. But that’s the tour they’ve got for me, so that’s what I’ll do, even if that means no time to stop in anywhere.
In 1997, the BMA charged $5.50 for adult admission. It’s free now, one of the only things that’s actually gone down in price since 1997. I duck in for some air conditioning and to refill my water bottles, and I take a quick swing through the dollhouse miniatures collection. It’s quiet and cool and adorable, the perfect place to duck in for a minute, rest, and get cultured. It’s quiet on this particular day, virtually empty except for some kids with their nanny and bored museum guards. On weekends the museum is bustling with all types of folks, but they’re at work.
I’m on the Lonely Planet schedule, though, so I head out quickly, pedaling up to Druid Hill Park, past the tennis courts that hosted one of the first integrated tennis matches in the city and around the reservoir that holds the drinking water for much of north Baltimore. I ride the curves and twists of the Jones Falls Trail to the Maryland Zoo, where I just so happen to be a member. I hop in for a quick hello to the prairie dogs, but time was a-ticking and I had miles to go before I could complete the North Baltimore tour.
Painted Lady houses on the Guilford Avenue
The ride back west takes me back through the park and through Charles Village and its Painted Lady houses. There’s plenty of shade on this part of the ride, the tree canopy draping with all the drama of a neighborhood invested in for generations. And then I hit North Avenue and take a left, and it’s all dodging potholes and cars as the trees go disappear, replaced by the vacant homes and boarded-up storefronts that stretch across much of east and west Baltimore.
And then I rolled up on GREAT BLACKS IN WAX, one of my favorite museums in the city. Lonely Planet guided visitors there to see “figures of over 100 prominent African Americans,” but they left out the good stuff. It’s in an old firehouse on an otherwise empty block that is awaiting further development. There’s a parking lot across the street, and the courthouse is on the other corner. It feels like a planet away from the BMA. I only have time to sneak into the lobby where a giant wax Hannibal is riding a giant elephant, but I’ve been here before. There’s a slave ship filled with stacks upon stacks of wax bodies being shipped across the Middle Passage. There’s a wax Nat Turner, perched on a log, a squirrel at his shoulder as he plots insurrection. There’s a wax Harriet Tubman, a wax George Gibbs (the first African American in Antarctica), a wax James Baldwin, and the founders of FUBU, all in wax.
It’s the only Black heritage site that made it on the books in 1997, but today’s guide would include so many more.
I thought about that as I rode home to Waverly, a working class northeast neighborhood that to Lonely Planet readers might count as a suburb. Oh, how much can change in just 20 years—the questions we ask, the stories we want to hear—but how much also remains the same. The scars of continued disinvestment keep getting deeper, and I wonder how much of that the tourist can see.