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A solid connection to past - and future

WHEN I NOTED to my daughter recently that Baltimore is nicknamed the Monumental City, she challenged me to explain why. But rather than resort to a literal textbook explanation of our city's moniker, I asked her to lace up her shoes for a walk.

We are fortunate to live in a city neighborhood, Guilford, just north of Johns Hopkins University, where history and events are preserved in granite and bronze, not just in fleeting human memories. Within a few blocks of our home, I count dozens of monuments, statues and public sculptures - often set in charming green pocket parks - that record lives lived and lost, events profound and artistic inspiration made tactile and permanent.

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My favorite statue, perhaps, is just a two-block jaunt down Charles Street, on the edge of the Hopkins campus. There, preserved for the ages, is Sidney Lanier, 19th century poet and musician, in a relaxed yet dignified seated pose, one so welcoming that my daughter playfully climbs into his lap, expressing the wish that she might come to acquire some of his writing and musical skills.

Farther down the street is the august bust of Johns Hopkins, serious and sober, and of no interest to a little girl who spies greater thrills just beyond in the forested sculpture garden of the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's filled with modernist sculptures that strain and stretch her imagination.

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We cross Art Museum Drive to the truly imposing: Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson amount giant steeds, ready to meet their destinies at Chancellorsville, so seemingly full of life that they could charge us at any moment.

We cross the street, wandering the Hopkins campus to visit the verdigris naiad that presides over the lily-filled goldfish pond that fronts the Hopkins president's house.

We give our imaginations full rein in the campus' charming sculpture park that lies nearby, a child's delight with its minimalist Beniamino Bufano animals - giant-sized snail and cat, camels Dromedary and Bactrian, and a Madonna-like mother bear and cubs. There is the Native American lacrosse player, caught in midstride, to admire around the corner on University Parkway, at the entrance of the Lacrosse Museum, a figure of immediate relevance to a girl who has just discovered an interest in the sport.

Across the street, a newish statue of a Greek goddess (Hestia? Aphrodite?) graces the Colonnade hotel and condominium. My daughter, fresh from a school year of studying Greek mythology, brings the statue to vivid life with tales of the exploits and jealousies of the gods, goddesses and demigods.

A half block more and we come upon another Civil War memorial, honoring the women of Maryland who served the men and the cause of the Confederacy. For many, it must be a politically incorrect remembrance, but its permanence reminds us that ideas and values are in constant flux. The towering statue's moving depiction of two women consoling a dying soldier speaks to the humanity of all, even those whose politics and values seem wrongheaded to us more than a century later.

Finally, we return to Charles Street, headed for home. Farther up the street stands the bust of Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator, and a curiosity to find in this decidedly non-Latin locale. But we are wearied by the heat of a summer's day and its discovery awaits another adventure.

We have walked less than a mile. But as father and daughter, we have traveled much farther.

The truth is, having seen them every day, I had largely lost the ability to see what so clearly stood before me on the streets of Baltimore. Until my daughter's question, I had largely forgotten the riches that surround me. But once we launched on our journey, the ceaseless inquiries of my 9-year-old - "Who was that man?" and "Why did they make a statue of him?" - restored my vision. Permanently, I hope.

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Choosing a city neighborhood in which to raise our children entails trade-offs. Of course, we are blessed to live in an enclave as leafy and lovely as Guilford. But no doubt, a child of the suburbs would find conditions to quibble with - the lack of nearby ballfields and easy bike-riding, for example.

But in choosing to live where we do, amid so much visible, permanent history and culture, we are teaching our children that cities are places that endure and that the quick and intentional obsolescence of so much new development is not the only way to live.

We who live in the Monumental City must remember and appreciate that statues and monuments offer a permanence that ground us. They connect us to past generations and, more importantly, to our children's future.

Today's writer

Kevin O'Keefe practices public relations in Baltimore.

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


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