Bike thefts curb optimism about Baltimore

It was one of those rare June days in Baltimore — warm and sunny, not yet hot and humid — so you could take a good, long walk through the city without shvitzing or getting terribly distressed.

I mean, you could actually feel good about the place.

There was a cooling breeze along North Charles, so nice you didn't even feel the after-burn from the buses and delivery trucks in the street. People were strolling, walking dogs, riding bikes, pushing skateboards or waiting for the Charm City Circulator to take them to the Inner Harbor.

There was a young man, perhaps a college student, seated at a sidewalk table outside one of the many busy restaurants near the growing University of Baltimore; the lad had a large journal and appeared to be writing earnestly in longhand. Perhaps it was a poem. Or perhaps a novel. Perhaps a recipe for osso bucco. I didn't want to interrupt his flow by asking and, besides, he looked almost perfect in the role of sidewalk author. It's a tableau you want to see in a big city — the artist contentedly at work at a cafe, in plain sight — so I left it alone and kept walking.

With a couple of noticeable exceptions, in the area of North Avenue, there was hardly any trash on the east side of Charles Street for block after block, all the way from Old Goucher past Penn Station to Mount Vernon.

It was one of those days — indeed, the middle of a Monday — when Baltimore looked unusually clean, bright and lively. There was no festival, no big event, just the daily run of life along a major artery of the city, and the artery appeared healthy.

Pardon these urban reveries. I realize I was in one of the prettiest parts of town, and the weather was gorgeous. Plus, the Orioles had won two games in a row, and the baseball commissioner said something about the All-Star game coming back to Camden Yards.

So all of that can put you in a good mood, and you might even start to feel optimistic about the city. Baltimore has a way of sucking you into that feeling.

And then crushing it.

This time I'm not talking about the per capita rate of drug addiction or homicides.

Those are the obvious and profound optimism-crushers.

This time, I'm looking at last week's theft in Druid Hill Park — four dozen blue bicycles stolen from the city's popular Ride Around the Reservoir program.

It's a bike-sharing program run by the Department of Recreation and Parks. People go to Druid Hill or Lake Montebello and borrow a bike for a spin.

The program has been in place since 2006. Despite a problem with thefts in its second year of operation, the bike-share has been mostly successful. The city says about 3,000 people take advantage of the offer each season.

But on the evening of Memorial Day, police say, about 50 kids, teenage boys mostly, poured into Druid Hill and took the bikes that city workers had set out for residents to use.

Ride Around the Reservoir has been suspended indefinitely.

"The program helps thousands of people of all ages and races around the city stay in shape and have fun," says Chris Merriam, director of Bikemore, a group that works to promote bicycling in Baltimore.

Merriam was pretty distressed about the theft of the bikes. Only 12 of them have been recovered. But he's not giving up. He's asking the rest of us to be on the look out for the bright blue, cruiser-style bicycles and to notify police if you spot one.

"We are also asking the local philanthropic community to assist in replacing the bicycles," Merriam said. "We already have too few positive recreational activities for youths and families in this city, and we can't afford to lose another."

Worse things have happened here, of course, starting with the killings of human beings. I could give you a long list of familiar problems that keep Baltimore from breaking out, once and for all, and attaining a higher quality of life — the things that keep a city with great potential from being a city that's simply great.

Something about the bike theft jumped out, I guess because it marks a depressing setback in what has been a period of real progress on the ground, with a decline in overall violence, population growth after decades of decline, impressive development and redevelopment, and an influx of young workers and entrepreneurs with a belief in the city's future.

The bicycle movement has been part of the trend toward a younger, healthier, more optimistic culture. It's something you can sense. These are people who believe in city life, in public transportation, in biking and walking on streets that are inviting, safe and full of neighbors. I walk around town. I see this culture spreading, and in new corners of the city.

Fortunately for Baltimore, that crowd doesn't give up easily.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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