City Paper is starting something new for our Eats & Drinks section: conversations with Baltimoreans where—via the places they eat, drink, and hang out—they show us what this city means to them. The interview below, with photographer Devin Allen, begins this occasional series.
Photographer Devin Allen knows the best places to go if you want to get a generously poured drink.
We're in Teavolve, talking about drinks, food, culture, racism, and more in the middle of the Harbor East restaurant's busy Sunday brunch rush. Allen says he eats here often, usually taking a water taxi from his Under Armour office to grab lunch.
Allen is the Baltimore-based photographer you might know because a shot that he took during the uprising landed him a Time magazine cover. In the black and white photo, a protester, his face obscured by a bandanna, runs toward the camera, a troop of riot-gear clad officers behind him.
Two of his favorite spots are Baltimore bars Love Nest on Edmonson Avenue and Levels (now called Black Hole) on Franklintown Road, where the bartenders aren't beholden to any real rules when it comes to giving you that shot you ordered.
"They not real bartenders, so they pour you big ass shots. Like, a cup of water is a shot and you just be drunk as shit!" Allen's eyes light up devilishly. "And I can drink, so we go to Levels, just the conversation is like hood gossip. You catch up with your friends and like people you grew up with, and they play all the hood music but you get this certain type of realness that you can't get downtown, you can't get any other place—and you get drunk as shit!"
"You might end up spending $50 but you done bought $200 worth of shit! Because there's so much love."
Allen says that hood spots feel most like home. And he says that when he calls them "hood spots," he means something very specific.
"Some days I want to be around my people," he says. "Hood love, that real genuine love. When I say hood…I mean real, authentic. Something that I feel. It's like an emotion. I'm not saying it like, 'Oh you gon' get shot there.' No, it's hood like when you walk in there, you get treated like a brother, you get treated like a mother, you get treated like a sister. It's like, 'Yo, wassup, bruh, you want something to drink?' It's not (he assumes a proper, uptight voice) 'Hi, how are you doing?'"
He likes other places in the city, too: Aloha Sushi and XS on Charles Street, but he says that although those places are good, it's not quite the same as, say, Golden Dragon Inn, which is still hood, even though it's in the county.
"I like Aloha, where I know the bartenders, but it's a different kind of vibe. It's more fun, you know, a different type of fun," he says. "You might go to XS, you know the bartenders, they hand you a menu. You go to Golden Dragon and it's like, 'What you want to drink?' 'Yeah I need Jack. I need this.' 'Alright cool. Double shot?' You get lil' discounts here and there. Sometimes the bartender might pull you to the side like, 'Hey take a shot with me.' But you go to these places for conversation, these hood places. That hood love is different than if you go to like Harbor East, Canton. The bartender will sit and talk to you and if they like you, they might tell (the other customers) 'I'm comin', I'm comin'' because you're having a good conversation."
Allen is absolutely consumed with the city of Baltimore. He spends a lot of time talking about his goals as a photographer—how he's dedicated to representing this city.
It's easy to see that he cares a lot about this city's image. He's frustrated with people who he feels came here to capitalize on the post-Uprising spotlight that made Baltimore shorthand for a lot of things—fear, anger, chaos, and change. He bristles against what he calls the fetishizing of black pain.
"You cannot sit and tell me that white people do not have a fetish for black pain when every time you turn on the media that's all they're ever projecting," he says. "They get a kick out of it. And even with my story, all the beautiful things that happen out of Baltimore, they don't never get the traction."
Even still, Allen's horizons are expanding. He began working for Under Armour as a photographer and media designer in August 2015, and since then he's been able to travel the world (to places like Austria and China), learning about different cultures through food, drink, and photography. He talks about the things he's seen, the people he's met, and the experiences he's had with racism in kind of stream-of-conscious monologues.
"White people abroad…you would think…all the shit that they have done on a large scale to the world from the wars to slavery and different places like stuff that happened in Austria, what the Spaniards did in South America, you would think that it would be looked at differently, but the sad part about it is we get looked at differently. I was in Austria, they looked at me like I was a zebra walking down the street," he says.
"Even in Asia, they look at you like—" he says, twisting his face into a shocked expression.
"Like in Taipei people were really nice, but when I was in Shanghai people were looking at me like 'why the fuck are you here?' They're looking at me like I'm crazy, but when I travel to the more rural parts it's fine. When I'm in the more upper class parts of Shanghai and China when it's like Prada at the mall, Gucci stores, that's when I get those weird looks."
"But the Philippines, I love the Philippines. I fit right in. The Philippines are so cool, I met amazing families there. I got to hang with some locals. I got to play basketball at he airport."
When in Austria, Allen went to a refugee camp, which was a life changing experience.
"I got to meet families coming from Syria; they were so nice. So open with their stories and talking to me. I was playing with the kids and stuff like that. That's what actually changed my life, those kids. Like, one of the kids was 6 years old; they had been walking for 40 days…and they were on their way to Germany."
Allen says that whenever he travels, he makes a point to break out from his scheduled work obligations to learn about the place he's visiting.
"Every time I get downtime or it's time to be sleeping or stuff like that, I always go out and explore," he says. His bosses at Under Armour encourage this. "I'm a good storyteller, so they give me time to go out like that," he says.
"I like hanging with locals and vibing out. I don't even speak Chinese at all, but with a camera I'm able to, like, erase some of that barrier. Photography is like a gateway to connect with people."
Growing up and traveling has changed Allen's palate a lot.
"I was the kid that my mother had to fight me to eat my vegetables. I hated vegetables. I ain't really eat nothing and it's like the older I got, my taste buds changed, so it got to the point where I started eating sushi. When I go places, I eat local stuff. I like the local beer, the local wine, anything that's local," he says. "I just think like food and drinking it kind of helps you understand the culture. Like, in China you see traditionally how they do their tea, how they pour it three or four times to filter it—this is an art form."
Coming back to Baltimore, Allen talks about the way race divides this city. I tell Allen that I'm always hesitant to visit a bar or restaurant (even if we've written about it in CP) because I don't know how friendly they are to black people. It always feels like a gamble.
"Baltimore has a lot of different cultures and a lot of good places to eat, but like you said, you don't go to those places," Allen says. "I don't go to Federal Hill. Like, I don't. My family, some of my friends say, 'You want to go to Federal Hill?' Nope. For what? Every time I go there I end up about to fight some frat boys. The last time I went out there I was with co-workers from Under Armour. We went to Bookmakers and I actually had a good experience at Bookmakers. I love whiskey. Bookmakers has a lot of good whiskeys that I never heard of before, but I wonder if I didn't have my co-workers with me, would I still get the same treatment?"
Like many people here, Allen talks a lot about the uprising, picking apart details, identifying causes, figuring out what those things mean for the city. To illustrate, he tells me a story about a conversation he had at Aloha.
"I'm a bar hopper," he says. "People are like, 'You always drinking,' but you fail to realize I go for the conversation.
"I'm at Aloha just chillin' drinking. I'm just sitting. I'm just listening to this white guy, a black guy, and three white women and they are talking about the uprising and the way this black man is talking about 'Yeah I'm going to go purge' you know 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that' and it's like they're just talking about the uprising and I'm just sitting here and I tell the bartender... 'I gotta check 'em.' She was like 'Devin. Devin.' I'm like 'Naw I'm gon' be very polite.' So I went over and I said 'Hey I heard you talking about the uprising—do you understand what the uprising is about? Let me hip you to what really happened because I was there on the ground.' Yeah the uprising was bad, but you fail to realize a lot of people don't know that started from racist Orioles fans calling us niggers and monkeys, and that's what kicked off Saturday. We was peaceful all day. Freddie Gray's family was peaceful all day. But the drunk Orioles fans calling us niggers and monkeys and laughing. That's what happened."
"We ended up talking and having an amazing conversation—after I checked the shit out of them," he says, laughing. "We had an amazing conversation.
"We went on to talk about the universe, energy—all these things, and we have a lot in common. That's the issue with a lot of people and a lot of places: They never interacted with us, and then it's like they look at us as being one way."