On my second week in Baltimore, I went to my first local underground party. And it got busted by the cops.
It was early September, and I had come to the Annex Theater for a party called Burning Mom, named after the tired hippie extravaganza Burning Man.
At 2 a.m., the party was my penultimate stop of the night.
When I got there, the somewhat dilapidated building was flanked by no less than five police cars, with cops completing reports on the party they had just broken up.
Upstairs, the sprawling loft looked as if it'd been devastated by a Sparks-guzzling Tasmanian devil. Before the police arrived, it was clear that debauchery had taken place. A few hundred people had all come to watch super underground Baltimore acts like Dazzlestorm, Talk to Animals and Gravebangers at an event thrown by a small nonprofit theater.
In Miami, where I moved from, this would have been unthinkable. The party might have happened at a warehouse, but it would have been thrown by a vodka company and the performers would have been hawking their new album. That city has become a flytrap for global tourists, catering to their tastes and hangovers. They come for tent-pole events — Ultra Music Festival, Art Basel, the Super Bowl — and leave a mess behind.
While Miami attracts major Broadway shows and marquee music acts, there's no room for emerging artists, musicians or otherwise. There are few venues for live music — fewer still for original live music.
Young people used to flock there for cheap studio space, but the bloat of gentrification means they're now going to other places. Like Baltimore.
In my two weeks exploring Baltimore's nightlife, I've learned that residents have no aspirations to be a sixth New York City borough like Philadelphia, or a hipster bug zapper like Brooklyn. They come here for cheap rent and leisure and stay for its personality. If Miami is the lady with the plunging neckline and the boring patter, Baltimore is the blowzy broad with a million stories.
Before going to the Annex, I had a range of choices: HampdenFest, Panda Bear at Ottobar, local upstarts Beach House at Merriweather Post Pavilion and a giant house music party at the Paradox. All were cheap and had local roots.
The Ottobar was my first stop. There was no $20 cover as there would have been in downtown Miami, and my $3 Natty Boh didn't break my booze allowance. As soon as I climbed up those steep, narrow stairs, the view that greeted me was as comfortable as the club's worn-in couches.
At nearby Club Charles, the red booths and dimmed lights recalled an old-fashioned speakeasy, the kind of place where J.J. Hunsecker might grab a drink after finishing a column. But the crowd was young and conversational, many recent grads lured here by tight budgets.
Victoria Legrand, the lead singer of Beach House, who I saw perform later that night, said locals aren't in more ostentatious cities because Baltimore has everything they need. That was the case when she was younger, and it's still the case now, she said.
"They're content to be making it interesting for themselves," she said. Every time she comes back from a tour, new places have popped up that she hasn't seen yet, like the new artist-run gallery The Open Space.
"It's just proof that the kids in the city are doing what they have to, to keep it going," she said.
At the Annex, six acts performed before the police showed up. They had gotten so loud, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi later said, officers had been dispatched for a "fight in progress."
Michael Farley, a performer in Dazzlestorm who also organized the party, greeted me at the door. Sporting Doc Martens, fishnets, yellow short-shorts and a glitter-sparkled asymmetrical haircut, he looked like a Dumpster-diving Willy Wonka.
As he showed me around the former factory, which doubles as a gallery space and theater when it's cleaned up — and where four people live — it was clear that what attracts people here is the sense of possibility.
"Something like this wouldn't happen in New York," he said. "An apartment like this couldn't happen in New York."
Other cities may be suffocatingly unaffordable for young people, but Baltimore gives them space to thrive, without, Farley said, working them to death.
A native, he's never wanted to leave.
"Why move to Brooklyn? So you can be 15 minutes away from the East Village?" he said. "We're not settling for Baltimore. We want to be here."
If you go
The Annex Theater is at 419 E. Oliver St., Apt. 2W. Go to annextheater.x10hosting.com.
The Ottobar is at 2549 N. Howard St. Call 410-662-0069 or go to theottobar.com.
Club Charles is at 1724 N. Charles St. Call 410-727-8815.