Longtime columnist embarks on new writing path

After nearly 35 years as a columnist, it's time for me to find some new material.

I've written many columns about shad roe, sour beef and peach cake. Same goes for columns about Great-Aunt Cora's spring cleaning rituals and summer trips to Rehoboth. I know they were popular, and I won't stop writing about great Baltimore traditions and the people who taught me about them. But I ran short of ways of telling the old tales.

In fact, it's time for a confession. In many of my columns, I repeated sentences and entire passages from past columns that I considered my old standbys. My motivation was to give my readers what I thought they wanted. But it was disingenuous to include parts of previous columns word for word without telling the reader they had been published before, which is against Baltimore Sun policy.

I owe my readers new material, even if they were gracious and enthusiastic about reading one more recollection of 1960s Baltimore.

So just as Aunt Cora and my grandmother were able to usher in a new season with a house so clean it seemed new, I plan to start fresh. And for me, this couldn't come at a better time — and not just because spring is nigh.

For all too many months now, I have regretted not getting out of the office more, seeing the Baltimore I love. The city is always changing. I turn my head and something is different, tweaked in some interesting or peculiar way. I have a curiosity about these things, and the only way to satisfy that is to spend more time outside the newsroom.

We Baltimoreans tend to take comfort in our past. We are proud of our accomplishments. After all, our remarkable past has often become a prologue for change. Readers tell me they like learning about Baltimore's history. The ones who aren't from Baltimore tell me they want to learn about the region and need some help making sense of the place.

Now I plan to make it my job to show how that reassuring, and sometimes idealized, past has a role in shaping current events and a future for Baltimore. Starting next week, my columns will explore what's happening in Baltimore-area neighborhoods and communities. One week I may focus on Dundalk. The next, Ellicott City.

It has been fun writing to an audience of readers who can identify with the days when a D'Alesandro was mayor. But I also have to consider the passage of the years. I did some math; Harborplace, once symbolic of a bustling era in Baltimore, is now more than three decades old. Lexington Market, which has gone through more transformations than one can count, marks its 230th anniversary this year.

I've missed prowling around the city and suburbs in search of its characters and traditions. I can't remember how long it has been since I was last in Lexington Market, much less the Inner Harbor. I walked down Howard Street the other day; I hadn't been there in months. It's been even longer since I surveyed the city from a walk atop Federal Hill.

This should not happen to someone in my profession, and I promise to be on my game.

Among other tasks, my job will be to explain Baltimore's capacity to accommodate change and put that in the context of what preceded it. Isn't it the role of news organizations to be the troubadours of what is current?

I look forward to relearning the bus routes. I'll be hailing more cabs and consulting more maps. And putting on my walking shoes.

I won't be afraid to say when Baltimore is at its worst. While I've seen Baltimore take a step forward and then retreat, I've also seen it conquer many failings and turn a sketchy situation into an asset.

No matter how many times I walk down a Baltimore street, I still see something new and something to marvel at. I have fun at this. I often see a beauty in the lowliest alley. I see neighborhoods that have moved from inertia to vibrancy. I also observe places that just did not make it.

I enjoy seeing all the new faces around the city. I want to communicate the spirit of times, what brings a smile when I'm out on one of my walks.

Don't worry. If you like the old stories I've often told, they'll be referenced.

When I wrote my very first column in 1978, it was about the closure of the Parkway Theatre on North Avenue. Now, all these years later, it remains padlocked and the shutdown is still being discussed.

But that may be changing. I heard this in one of my favorite forums, chatting with Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, over a stand of potatoes and turnips at the Waverly Farmers' Market. Armed with that tip, I recently spent an afternoon in the grand old Parkway. My observations will appear next Saturday.


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