Marching across Baltimore, city in perpetual recovery

Along Baltimore's North Avenue, noting the patchwork of a city in recovery

Friday evening, on my way to the 300 Men March against the hideous surge in killings across Baltimore, I happened upon one of those odd and amusing scenes that rise from the city's creative spirit and its flair for organized spontaneity — men, women and children gathered on a corner lot to make spoons.

I heard the spoon-making before I could see it and understand what it was. An incessant tink-tink-tink, the sound of a metal shop, came to my ear as I approached Charles Street and North Avenue. People hunched over anvils and hammered at small objects, making light-metal jangle music on a summer night with a soft breeze.

The lot, with thick grass after the recent rain, is known as the Ynot Lot, an event space managed by Station North Arts and Entertainment. The Baltimore Jewelry Center has just moved into a studio in Station North. To celebrate, its instructors set up anvils and handed out jeweler's hammers and pieces of metal to people — about 50 at the peak of the two-hour event — who wanted to try shaping the metal into small tasting spoons. The payoff for this effort: The maker of the spoon could use it on some Taharka Brothers ice cream.

That's how it goes in Baltimore — you walk past things that surprise and amuse on the way to things that depress and crush on the way to things that excite and inspire. It has been like this throughout my nearly 40 years in Baltimore, a patchwork of good and rotten, life and death, rich and poor, new and old, things abandoned and things renewed. A city in perpetual recovery.

The people who care about Baltimore and love what it offers keep believing there will be a day when everything tips toward the good, pulling more of its citizens to a better life — when everyone gets the ice cream.

A lot of us thought we were headed there — and it wasn't just wishful thinking — until the Freddie Gray spring exposed problems that have festered in "the other Baltimore" for so long, including the bitter break between police and the citizens closest to the long war on drugs and the zero-tolerance strategy that led to mass arrests.

But while we were looking to the future, pointing to reasons for hope and working on projects (like Station North) that would get the city to a real tipping point, few in this town denied the existence of that "other Baltimore." Baltimoreans are not climate change deniers. We are well aware of the city's problems. We were heartbroken by April's rioting, but not shocked to hear about underlying issues. The shock came mainly to the national news media — riot tourists with cameras, talking heads that pay little attention to urban problems until there's a five-alarm fire, then seem to relish the opportunity to describe a city bereft of anything good or promising.

I didn't notice much of the national media — or any of the many others who seem to have so much to say about Baltimore — on Friday evening when the 300 Men March came along North Avenue to denounce the violence in our city.

Dozens of marchers, many of them in the now-distinctive black-and-white T-shirts that say "We must stop killing each other," filled the street, a football field of men and boys walking the five miles "from Hilton to Milton," from Hilton Street on the west end of the avenue to Milton Avenue on the east, and back again.

The 300 Men March is not some post-Freddie Gray contrivance. Friday's march was the third. The first was an act of organized spontaneity in the summer of 2013, when the city experienced a surge in shootings and homicides. Munir Bahar started this movement, and he was again at the front on Friday night, setting a fast pace. With him were members of a youth group Bahar and his colleagues created after April's unrest to mentor boys and teach them the life skills they need to survive the streets and become Baltimore's future leaders. The march is good, but the real hard-sweat of the movement is reaching the next generation, getting kids to a place better than where they started.

With a police escort, the men marched through Station North, past the city school headquarters and across Greenmount Avenue, then across Broadway. Drivers honked their car horns as the men went by. Cheerful women handed them bottles of water.

At one point, I looked up at the rowhouses along North Avenue, and I could see the purple-blue sky through the front windows one of them, its roof and rear wall missing. Next door, a woman stood on her marble steps and clapped her hands to applaud the march.

When the men and boys reached the end of North Avenue, at the hill that leads to Baltimore Cemetery, someone set off fireworks on Milton Street. After rest and water, the marchers turned around and headed back across our city of perpetual recovery.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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