It is the best of cities, it is the worst of cities. It is a city of daring, a city of despair, a city of dreams, a city of drugs, a city of quirks, a city of guns, a city unbound, a city aground. It is wholly charming and totally frustrating, full of renewal and blighted with loss.
Apologies to Dickens, but I must ask: What city is this? Which Baltimore? Is this the city of construction cranes and sky-high ambitions or the moribund city bogged down with poverty, perversity and violence?
I answer my own question.
It is both.
Baltimore has always been a tale of two cities, but now, it seems, even more so.
Urbem esse in extremo, a city of extremes.
Not since the 1990s, in the long aftermath of the crack epidemic, have I had such a feeling of foreboding about my adopted hometown. The “other Baltimore” that received acknowledgment and full if fleeting attention at two stages in our modern history — in the 1980s, amid the widely praised Baltimore renaissance, and in 2015, after the Freddie Gray riots — is speaking to us again (it’s screaming at us again) and in the harshest ways.
I don’t say this because of what happened Tuesday morning — the fatal shooting of Alexander Wroblewski outside the Royal Farm store on Key Highway, where Locust Point meets South Baltimore, where the old industrial waterfront meets the new city of urban, CrossFit millennials. But because of Wroblewski plus everything else.
Because of the daily shootings, and all the sickening, senseless death of the last many months and years.
Because of the recent series of hateful, random acts of violence by teenage boys, leading the mayor to declare crime out of control and utter a call for all hands on deck.
Good thing Catherine Pugh did that. Calling for a daily meeting of 30 agency heads suggests a healthy sense of urgency about crime in City Hall, which makes the current situation distinctly unlike what we saw in the disheartening 1990s.
Of course, it would have been nice to hear the mayor make her declaration 11 months ago, on the day of her inauguration. She did not exactly hit the ground running on crime, given that by December 2016, when she took her oath, Baltimore was about to close out a second straight year of 300-plus homicides.
Now we’re heading to the finish of a third year of 300-plus killings, most of them by firearms. Baltimore has an endless supply of guns, and people willing to use them.
Good thing Pugh ordered everyone — health workers, housing and school officials and public works crews — on board with the police. She should do more. (Two suggestions: Get the Baltimore TV stations to run a series of smart anti-violence commercials, and produce radio spots to remind citizens to use 311 to let the cops know what’s going on in their neighborhoods.)
The tendency of elected officials and people who run businesses in the city — and the rest of us homers — is to talk around crime. No mystery there: Too much talk is bad for business and property values. We want to present Baltimore in a positive light. We hate the feeling of being a second-class city. Civic pride takes a beating when the national press parachutes in for a day and depicts the old burg as a violent, dystopian nightmare. In a headline in June, the Washington Post referred to Baltimore as “a city coming apart,” and an old friend, a lifer here, called me to commiserate about it. He was deeply distraught.
(An aside: A guy stopped me in the supermarket the other day to say The Baltimore Sun should publish more stories about suburbanites fearing for their safety when they travel downtown. He then told me about being carjacked a few years ago — in Towson.)
A mayor has to be the city’s biggest booster, and if Pugh has chops for anything, it’s for promoting business, commerce and civic engagement. There are thousands of other people involved in redevelopment and in running businesses, people who’ve invested in the city, people who believe in its potential, people who want to live and work here, maybe raise a family, enjoy the best of Baltimore.
There’s a lot that’s seductive about the place. A lot that’s bewildering, too.
A lot that’s totally surreal.
I recently visited the 30th-something floor of a gleaming blue skyscraper that, when completed, will stand as the tallest residence in Baltimore — 394 apartments, two of them penthouses renting for $8,000 a month, with stunning views all around. While getting a tour, and hearing about all the luxury amenities, I was awed by the project. But then my eyes and mind drifted to the Inner Harbor below, where children have committed crimes, then to the city’s rowhouse horizons, and the streets where men and women get shot and die. And that’s how it goes these days.