Both scared and charmed by Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun

I'm not going to lie: a key factor in my decision to come to college in Baltimore was the movie Sleepless in Seattle.

Annie, Meg Ryan's character, is a Baltimore Sun reporter who inexplicably falls in love with a complete stranger - played by Tom Hanks - whom she hears on the radio. Convinced she's losing her mind, she seeks the advice of her brother, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University portrayed hilariously by David Hyde Pierce.

Because of the movie, I came to the Johns Hopkins University and became an intern at the Sun.

Sleepless in Seattle aside, I knew little else about Baltimore when I moved here four years ago. My first introduction to it was hardly as endearing as the film. It was, though, just as unforgettable.

On freshman move-in day, my mother asked our cabdriver about the area surrounding the Hopkins campus, which we'd heard was not quite as safe as the Midwestern suburbs I was leaving.

"Oh, it's not that bad anymore," the driver told us. "It used to be a real jungle, but now all the criminals are just killing each other off."

My mother gently asked me if I would please reconsider Cornell, in safe, rural Ithaca.

But no, I told her that the Georgian marble of Hopkins had already captured my heart, as had the tiny quirks of Charles Village: the Shops at Homewood flower store, the 50s-style diner on the corner, the quaint rowhouses, all within walking distance of Hampden and Waverly.

But since then, like most college flings, my relationship with the city has been tumultuous at best.

At first, I felt suffocated. I was trapped, without a car and for the most part, without a convenient public transportation system. After several of my classmates were robbed walking around campus, I soon lost interest in walking to Hampden and Waverly. The first time in my life that I thought I actually might die was when my brother and I attended a Ravens-Broncos game, both wearing our Denver jerseys, blue and orange face paint and our Bronco heads. And we just might have, had not a security officer escorted us back to our rental car.

But I survived, and I was determined to look for the beauty in Baltimore. I worked with Hopkins' Habitat for Humanity chapter in Sandtown and saw a community struggling to rebuild itself. And while the city didn't yet feel like home, it felt like a city with its doors open. There were the $10 student tickets at the symphony, the hipsterish nights at the Charles Theatre, the elegance of the Helmand restaurant that even my friends and I could afford.

The only thing that truly bothered me were the Hopkins kids who complained about Baltimore when they never went out to get to know it. Maybe they acted that way because they were lazy, but later I realized that a lot of them were simply scared. No amount of optimism could belie the city's darker side, Baltimore's brutal reality of drug use and gang violence. I had been determined, like most Hopkins students, to push that side of Baltimore out of my mind, to isolate myself from it as much as possible - but that unwelcome reality soon found its way into my life on its own.

A Hopkins student was fatally stabbed in his fraternity house, and then months later, another student was murdered in her apartment. It felt so senseless; any good faith or trust we'd had in the city was shattered, and a culture of fear enveloped our lives.

I remember telling my parents how difficult it was to lead a normal life when I didn't feel safe. Suddenly I was no longer a student, no longer a transplanted Midwesterner, no longer anything other than a living, breathing human being, all too aware of the fragility of life.

Hopkins began fortifying itself from the community, and even Charles Village seemed to be collapsing. Everything that wasn't being torn down seemed to be falling down - including the bathroom ceiling of my apartment, which caved in when one of my upstairs neighbors let his tub overflow.

"It's just life, honey," was my mother's comment. This, after I had been living for nine days without a functioning bathroom in an un-air-conditioned apartment infested with ladybugs.

It was just life - but by then, it was also my home. I'd found that Baltimore was not just a city but a collection of niches, filled with fascinating people tucked away inside them. The challenge of living here is not simply discovering those niches, but discovering where you belong within them.

As that's happened over these past four years, Charles Village has changed, as have the students who reside there. Walking down St. Paul Street, I see as many Charles Village hoodies and Ray Lewis jerseys as I do Hopkins lacrosse hats. Home is an evolving concept, I've found. It's not where you're from, but where you feel you belong, even if you don't always want to admit it.

I still make jokes and complain about Baltimore. The Greatest City on Earth? That's funny. But there is something undeniably charming about the city that I've fallen in love with, and I can't quite explain it.

So, I find myself doing what I've always done when I'm in need of an explanation for the inexplicable: referring to Sleepless in Seattle. Baltimore's charm, to me, has been as dramatic and nonsensical as Annie's transcontinental love affair.

It was like ... magic.

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