Silver anniversary of a Charm City life


SATURDAY, RAIN or shine, I'm going for a long walk through my beloved Baltimore.

I plan to tramp its streets, roads, avenues and alleys. I'll stop by my old haunts and look for some familiar faces from the early times. For on that day, I will celebrate my 25th anniversary of living in the city.

I can remember the date exactly because my high school diploma was issued May 30, 1978, and I skipped town the next morning. Somewhere in the past, at the long-gone kitchen table of my childhood home, I dropped a bomb on my mother and father. I announced that I wasn't going to attend a university in nearby Pittsburgh, but instead wanted to go to art school in Baltimore.

My father almost gagged. "Baltimore! I used to work in Baltimore! It's awful! You'll hate it!" That took me by surprise. I had no idea he had ever lived in Baltimore.

"When did you live in Baltimore, Dad?"

"1942," he replied, without the slightest hint of irony.

I nervously slid some school brochures across the table. They were well-worn because I had been carrying them around for weeks, waiting for the right moment. My parents passed them back and forth while my father was shaking his head and muttering, "Baltimore."

For all I knew, the old man was right. I had never actually been there. But how bad could it be? Besides, four years of college and I'd be gone.

That day after graduation, I packed my car, drove to Baltimore and enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I didn't even wait for the fall semester, but signed up for a summer drawing class.

The instructor kept us out of the studio and we worked on sketchpads while sitting on street corners, at public parks or at the zoo. One morning I was doing a charcoal drawing of the Inner Harbor. It was pretty good, and featured a spice company called McCormick, a newspaper building called the News American and a ship called the Nobska. I wish I still had it.

A man stopped to look over my shoulder. He introduced himself, we chatted for a minute and then he continued on his way. Another man approached me.

"Do you know who that was?" he asked.

"Don something-or-other," I replied, without looking up.

"Don Schaefer," the man volunteered. "He's the mayor."

I became one of the converted. I eagerly talked up Baltimore to anyone who would listen. Back then, it wasn't a particularly tough sell. The renaissance was picking up speed and the city was reinventing itself. Those unfortunates banished to the suburbs were the subject of scorn and ridicule, mostly dismissed as simply not getting it.

I moved a few blocks, from Bolton Hill to neighboring Mount Vernon, and delighted in their drastic differences. The Mount Royal Tavern and the Irish Pub still compete for my true love. I bought my first home in Highlandtown.

In the summer, when the wind was right, I could hear the horns on the tugboats. My second house was in Remington; the boat horns were replaced with the clanging of train couplings in the CSX yard.

While living there, I realized I had lived in Baltimore longer than I had lived in the town where I grew up. These days, home is a place called Keswick by the mapmakers and Alonsoville by the residents.

When I arrived in Baltimore in 1978, I didn't know anyone. Now it seems as if I know too many. Or at least that's what my wife says whenever we have a party. I'm looking forward to seeing some of them on my walk. I'm also looking forward to drinking a toast or two along the way, in honor of my first quarter century in Charm City.

My father died a few years ago, and I'm sorry he won't be able to join me. He wouldn't recognize the place.

Today's writer

Jim Burger spent 10 years taking photographs for The Sun and is now a free-lance photographer and writer.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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