EVERY SEPTEMBER I grow dewy-eyed when I think of pleasant weekends spent at the Baltimore City Fairs of the 1970s and '80s.
It was a time when a confident Baltimore was believing in itself -- when tiny block clubs in obscure parts of Baltimore exhibited their pride and neighborhood women baked cookies in the name of civic goodwill.
There was a naive charm about the whole enterprise.
The City Fairs were supposed to be a showcase of neighborhoods. They were -- up to a point -- but there were also carnivals with gaudy amusement rides and corridors of junk food. I think you could smell the grilled onions on the Eastern Shore if the humidity was high.
In some ways, the City Fair was all about pre-corporate Baltimore, before the national chains came to dominate the harbor and Baltimoreans still owned some of the surviving downtown department stores. Before we left it to the Orioles and Ravens to populate the harbor with their ticket holders.
I didn't make it to the first fair in 1970. I was away in school, but my brother Eddie was on hand. He wrote me an account I'll never forget.
He went downtown that Saturday with a neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, a woman who was my parents' age. Dorothy, a social worker, was a stalwart shopper at what was then the city's commercial rialto at Howard and Lexington streets. She was also a bedrock believer in Baltimore.
She thought the City Fair was the greatest thing to happen here since the Washington Monument went up.
She grandly offered to treat him to lunch that day at a caterer's stand at the corner of Charles and Saratoga streets. The order went in for two beef sandwiches. The street-side proprietor presented a bill for $8.
Remember, this was 1970. Dorothy swallowed deeply, very deeply, and handed over a five and three singles. As my brother said, she looked as if she'd been asked to pay the national debt. She never talked about the incident again. And she enjoyed the fair because of the good it did for Baltimore.
At their best, the fairs brought a smile to Baltimore and a sense that old neighborhoods were treasures to be celebrated.
In time, the formula behind the City Fair grew repetitious. Year after year you saw the same displays getting hauled out.
I guess the enthusiasm of the volunteers grew thin. And Baltimore has other competing festivals too -- the one in Fells Point, the huge and successful Artscape and the Mount Vernon book festival.
I liked the City Fair because it was a forum for all the diverse parts of Baltimore to come out for an early fall day. It was also a forum for people to get out of their own cloistered neighborhoods -- Baltimoreans are famous for staying in their own back yards -- and seeing a little more of the local geography.
And, is it ever a bad idea to take some time to toast Baltimore?