When questions of urban living steer their way into our vision


AN ADVERTISEMENT is making its way around town on the sides of buses asking the question, "So, why do you live here?"

I have no idea what product is being marketed; it doesn't really matter. It has spoken to a deeper concern of mine: Why do I live here? Assuredly, I like lots of things about Baltimore as a whole: the art and funk of this place, the architecture and the history, the water, which has always soothed me, and the size. This place is large enough for me to meet new people, though I am constantly running into someone I know.

A friend of mine in Madison, Wis., e-mailed me the other day. "You know, I've never been to Baltimore," he wrote. "I'd like to go someday, see what it's like." The cheerleader in me swelled with enthusiasm. "Yes! Come visit! Baltimore is a great place!" I wanted to convince him. I was filled with a pride for this place, even though, on other days, I am well aware of the city's shortcomings, the trash and violence, the piles of pebbled glass that are tell-tale signs of broken windows. Still, I wanted to persuade him to visit, to show him all the things I like about living in Baltimore, all the things I appreciate about my neighborhood, Butcher's Hill.

Why do I live here? My friend, Steve, who spent several years living in Upper Fells Point, Butcher's Hill, Federal Hill and Hampden finally bought a home in Idlewylde near Towson. Besides a lifestyle change and a need for more space, he says he got tired of replacing the busted side-view mirrors on his truck, got tired of the prostitution and the occasional gunshots. Still, there is something I prefer about living in the city instead of around it. That something has kept me here for the past 10 years.

Certainly, it's more than the location of Butcher's Hill, though that's part of it. It's as easy to hop on I-83 and I-95 as it is to walk down the hill to Fells Point to get coffee and a newspaper. Or, I can hike across Patterson Park to Canton.

In the spring, I like to listen to the kids in the park or watch a few innings of the local baseball games. Having no allegiance to either team, I sit in the grass and root for everyone. Walking home, I like the architecture of these old rowhouses built by German brew meisters, and I am always struck by the view from Lombard Street, how it cuts a beautiful hilly line from the top of Patterson Park down through the city.

I like the water that's a few blocks south, the sound of the seagulls, the view of the harbor from my roof.

I like the corner grocery stores that are packed so tight it's hard to turn around. I love my plot in the community garden, the herbs and vegetables that grow despite the tough city dirt. I even like the goofy ice cream truck that roams our neighborhood and greets us with a confused "Helllooo?" before every out-of-tune song.

Maybe I could show these things to my friend from Wisconsin, but that's just part of it. I love living in the city because I like my neighbors. OK, not all of my neighbors, all of the time.

But Butcher's Hill is a great mix of classes and ethnic groups. An old Polish and Ukrainian, Irish and German population blends with an African-American, Lumbee Indian and growing Hispanic community.

There is something exciting and infectious about the diversity. It reminds me that there is more than one way to think.

Parking on my block is hard on Sunday mornings, a fact I appreciate since it's proof that St. Michael's Church is packed, and the neighborhood, for a few short hours a week, is full of hope and faith.

I love running into friends and swapping news of the sidewalk for a few minutes. I am grateful for other neighbors, too, some of whom I don't even know by sight. A core group of activists protects the neighborhood and has worked for 25 years to target certain problem areas and improve this community. It is a contest that requires vigilance, willingness and devotion. I revere their efforts to defend against prostitution, drugs, violence and nuisance crimes, negligent landlords and trash.

"You've got to pick up trash," my neighbor Joe says emphatically. Joe is a longtime resident of Butcher's Hill. When he bought his home and began to renovate, he started with a broom and a trash can. He believes that people are less likely to throw their litter on the ground if the sidewalks are swept. Conversely, a trashy street is symptomatic of a deeper malaise. The fight for a community's survival, then, starts with picking up the trash. A clean street just feels better.

And the street where I live, Washington Street, teeters between two community associations. My side of the street, the west side, is considered Upper Fells Point, while the opposite side of the street is Butcher's Hill. We are on the borderline, which is to say, we're on the verge.

The verge of becoming, of improving. The potential is compelling. Houses are being renovated; there is action here and change. With that comes hope.

So, why do you live here?

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