Eight months ago I exchanged my posh Lincoln Center zip code (10023) and 212 area code for Baltimore's 21209 and 410. This is my new/old city — I was raised here but spent my working life in New York.
When I was laid off from a legal administrative assistant job in New York, it made sense to move back to the Baltimore area. Here, I am combining my continuing job search with giving of my time to worthwhile organizations. Meanwhile I cannot help but observe the differences between living in an exciting world capital with living in a — well, smaller city.
In New York, I spotted — and sometimes spoke with — numerous legendary performers in the classical music field, my passion. A famous string quartet practiced in my high rise. They all autographed their Shostakovich CD for me. I ran into a famous concert pianist on the street and told him how I loved his performances.
In Baltimore, I have met many people whom I knew as a child and teenager years ago. It has been delightful to renew acquaintances. When I tell them my name, they ask me, "Are you that Eileen Pollock?" The local Starbucks has also become an early morning oasis of friendly caffeine addicts.
I can't overstate how pleasant Baltimoreans are. How polite. In New York, if someone brushes against you on the street (and accidental brushing is inevitable given the throngs of people in close proximity) — you say "excuse me," not the guy who bumped into you. In Baltimore, if someone slightly penetrates the penumbra of your personal space, they say "excuse me" or "sorry." This is amazing to me.
Service people are genuinely nice. They must be hired for that quality. We exchange a word or two of small talk. It makes life more human. In contrast, New York is filled with the irritable and the sharp-elbowed. The slower pace here is semi-Southern and must account for the greater relaxation that people express in their dealings. Not that it's not a serious city. There is plenty of business going on, people are just as intent on their working lives — only they aren't frantic about it as you often see in New York, in the hordes rushing from the Grand Central shuttle to their office buildings in the morning for example.
But Baltimore City is not all sunshine and smiles. The subway can be a hazardous mode of transportation for a woman alone. Many neighborhoods discourage pedestrians altogether, everyone hiding safely in their cars. Safety is a serious, all-absorbing issue. Where can I travel? When? Is it safe to work overtime downtown? Is it safe to park in that garage?
Baltimore is totally car-dependent while New York is easy to navigate on public transportation. In New York, it is safe to walk most streets in the business and well-to do residential areas of Manhattan, and not only because the streets are filled with people cum witnesses. There is also a strong police presence. I do not see police in Baltimore City — but as soon as I cross the border into Baltimore County, police cars are a common sight.
Some basic level of civilized living has been lost as the city has been abandoned by all the Baltimoreans who made the rational decision to live in the suburbs, far from violence. They hope.
I don't feel safe downtown. The subway between Owings Mills and Johns Hopkins Hospital is grim, and it, like the city, has been abandoned by much of the middle class and the prosperous. Driving and garaging downtown is difficult and expensive. These are problems that I don't see the mayor talking about, or any of our politicians.
There is much to admire in the city for arts and music lovers: the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Baltimore Symphony, the excellent Shriver Hall Concert Series, Baltimore Choral Arts Society and concerts at Peabody, to name a few. I only wish I felt safe visiting and parking near these wonderful places.
How can the city survive and thrive if those who would support its finest institutions are afraid to venture out at night? How can the downtown revive if employees are afraid of being accosted as they leave their office buildings after work? The city is characterized by large swaths of no man's land and small guarded enclaves of higher civilization. Baltimore's political leaders and the police commissioner have to face up and tackle these problems if Baltimore is not to slide into the tragic deurbanization that has afflicted say, Detroit or Newark.
Eileen Pollock was an executive assistant at a large New York law firm. Her writing has appeared in the "Metro Diary" section of New York Times. Her email address is email@example.com.
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