Baltimore's Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, once the city's supreme skyscraper, always delivers a smile. It's a symbol of kitsch and nostalgia, like the city itself. It's a reminder of a gritty past and an uncertain present.
And right now, it's making me feel like I've stumbled into the fantastic world of the movie "Hugo," because I'm inside the clock at the top of the tower, inside the glorious Seth Thomas timepiece that still serves the city 102 years after it was installed for $3,965.
Joe Wall, the tower's facility manager — he's the guy who puts colored gels on the clock's lights to celebrate important occasions — is leading a free tour of the Clock Room, complete with the story of the tower's heyday (a 20-ton blue bottle of the headache remedy sat atop the building), its decline (a stereotypical Baltimore tale of neglect and despair) and its renaissance (reborn as artists' studios).
And my usual reaction to Baltimore — Get me a Bromo — fades away, at least for the moment.
I've always been torn about Baltimore. I'm mystified by Washington fans who lustily add an Orioles "O" to the singing of the national anthem at Nationals Park. I have about as much interest in news from the next big city up the Northeast Corridor as I do in, say, Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, I'll happily stop off in Baltimore's Little Italy on my way down Interstate 95 heading home from a New York jaunt, and it's a cheap pleasure to join other Yankees fans in taking over Camden Yards whenever the Bronx Bombers are in town. As long as Baltimore fans aren't using their lovely ballpark, it's nice of them to lend it to us.
But I never got into the true-grit romance of Baltimore. Those black billboards that Martin O'Malley put up around town when he was mayor, urging his dispirited constituents simply to "BELIEVE," struck me as more pathetic than stirring. I loved HBO's "The Wire," especially the episodes written by Washington novelist George Pelecanos, but its depiction of Baltimore didn't exactly make me pine for the place, let alone want to pop up for a weekend getaway.
So when the Travel editors suggested that I check in on our neighbor to the northeast, I admit to a certain grumpiness, informed by decades of hearing Randy Newman's pained wail ("Oh, Baltimore, man, it's hard just to live") in the back of my mind and by a pesky allergy to all things John Waters. (I enjoy a great beehive hairdo as much as the next guy, but camp, ultimately, is as empty as Baltimore's rubble-strewn vacant lots.)
For a city of its size, and especially one with its reputation — the day after the Super Bowl, the Onion produced one of its instant gem headlines: "Baltimore Looking for Safer City to Host Super Bowl Parade" — Charm City has a splendid array of attractions. But when it comes to basics such as the Inner Harbor, National Aquarium, Walters Art Museum, Fort McHenry and Fells Point, most Washingtonians have probably already been there.
Instead of revisiting old favorites such as the American Visionary Art Museum, I wanted to push back against my bias, measure the march of gentrification against the preservation of the city's much-ballyhooed old neighborhoods, explore, eat well — and maybe even figure out what I really think of the place.
My wife, Jody, and I start off with a test that any decent city should pass in a flash: A sandwich you can't find anywhere else. Score one for Baltimore. On the day before the Super Bowl, we wait with a crowd of purple-clad locals in the queue at Trinacria, behind metal grating just north of downtown on Paca Street, and in the time it takes to order our porchetta, provolone and grilled onions panini, we're lured over to a fine selection of Italian bakery cookies, a smorgasbord of spicy olives, fresh pasta and a startling selection of $4 wines. Yes, $4. (Parking outside is plentiful and stunningly cheap. This will become a theme.)
Trinacria is like New Orleans's Central Grocery or Pittsburgh's Primanti Bros., an old-school sandwich shop with counter staff who love to yak it up with the customers, nearly all of whom are regulars. Any time you can get a taste of neighborhood relationships with your juicy hot sandwich, your day is starting strong.
Properly fortified, we decide to check out what street signs tout as the "Station North Arts and Entertainment District," a strip of North Charles Street near the Amtrak station that is in early-stage gentrification, that strangely alluring phase in which boarded-up buildings, empty lots, homeless men sprawled across stoops, warmly welcoming coffee spots and experimental theaters share the streetscape, all waiting to be displaced by developers with bigger ideas and deeper pockets.
On a cold morning on the cusp of snow, we duck into the Bohemian Coffee House, which bills itself on a sign inside as "Baltimore's best place to take awkward dates." Sure enough, the room is buzzing — literally — with the jew's-harp stylings of Ian Hesford from the Baltimore tribal jam band Telesma, which specializes in mesmerizing trance and electronic music with a Middle Eastern and Central Asian flavor.
Hesford, accompanied by a jovial drummer who chats mid-session with customers a few tables away, switches from the mouth harp to the didgeridoo, the Australian wind instrument made from hollowed-out eucalyptus trees. And between the music, the hipster vibe, the impressive selection of loose teas and the "Sexy in Soot" wall calendar featuring working guys in hard hats, we feel as if we've walked onto an indie film set. (On the other hand, we parked for free and the musicians played for tips. Cheap and easy, once more.)
There's a self-conscious celebration of the intersection between grit and hip going on here — look how authentic we are, the neighborhood's new arrivals seem to be saying; or as a local headline put it: "Station North: Is It Brooklyn Yet?" — and it comes off as a bit precious. Somehow, it's a relief to step outside, walk around the corner and exchange greetings with a couple of guys lying on the pavement in front of a long-dead movie theater.
But the artsy crowd in Station North gets us in the mood for the twice-monthly open house at the Bromo Tower, that delightful bit of early 20th-century corporate fantasy architecture on South Eutaw Street near the ballpark. Modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the ornate 15-story tower is best known for that iconic clock, which spells out the name of the patent medicine once produced in a factory attached to the office building.
Now, the building — which turns out to be startlingly small on the inside — has been converted into studios for painters, photographers and even a playwright. For as little as $320 a month (what a bargain, again), artists have themselves a place to work, a community, spectacular views of downtown and a ready-made indoor art fair on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Making our way from floor to floor, we discover Janet Little Jeffers's lush and revealing photos taken on a slow drive from Annapolis to San Diego, and Martha Dougherty's elegant watercolors of Baltimore scenes presented with affection but never affectation. On the top floor, confident and eager high-school students show their art and perform their poetry, which is about those same contrasts we saw in Station North, but viewed through a more rigorous lens — from the city bus and school hallways where bullying and violence shape a young person's life far more than any new combo gallery and coffee spot.
Of course, Baltimore isn't all art studios and hipster shops. We zip over to the National Pinball Museum, which moved last year from Washington's Georgetown Park mall to Baltimore's Water Street, near Port Discovery and the Power Plant (and, alas, is closing its doors March 3 while it looks for yet another home to relocate to). Fifteen dollars bought us two hours of unlimited play, a whirl of pinball madness including games based on "Jurassic Park," "The Twilight Zone," "The Addams Family," "Indiana Jones" and even baseball's Frank Thomas and rock's Ted Nugent.
Even here, in tourist central, street parking is plentiful and, yep, free on weekend evenings. Randy Newman got one thing wrong in his anthem to Baltimore's dysfunction: "Hard times in the city / In a hard town by the sea," he writes. "Ain't nowhere to run to / There ain't nothin' here for free."
Oh man, the parking. We park five times in 14 hours on Saturday, for a total cost of $1.70. Plus a free overnight spot immediately across from our downtown hotel. For a Washingtonian, this is a small urban miracle.
In some cities, easy parking is a sign of depopulation and blight. And certainly the long, slow exodus from Baltimore continues. But some folks who study cities say that a place like Baltimore can improve its reality and its reputation in part by getting smaller.
Even in decline, Baltimore has managed to add some glitz to its grit. Harbor East, just east of the Inner Harbor, is the kind of high-end real estate development that city governments love because they generate revenue, even if true urbanists sigh at such clusters because they look and feel the same from city to city.
Harbor East features generic upscale architecture, swanky shops (something Baltimore hasn't been associated with in, oh, half a century or so), a Four Seasons hotel, apartments designed to attract a Georgetown demographic, and destination restaurants — some chain outlets, but more interestingly, some of the city's best-reviewed local offerings (Cinghiale, Charleston, Pabu).
We eat at Ouzo Bay, a Greek seafood spot that looks like nothing in Greektown; the sea blue is the same, but this place is designed to the hilt. This is a place with a seafood program, not a dog-eared menu. The crowd is noticeably Baltimore — older, more casually dressed, whiter and heavier than you'd find in a similarly priced spot in Washington. But the octopus is soft and flavorful, and the waiters know their fish. And we park, for free, right across the street.
Same thing later that night, as we drop by a place I'd long heard about but never visited, An die Musik, which routinely offers jazz, classical and new music artists who don't usually make it to Washington. The room looks and feels like a Viennese salon, with big, upholstered easy chairs and gorgeous acoustics. The crowd is knowledgeable, if small. We hear Emy Tseng, a Washington-based singer of Brazilian jazz, with a stellar combo of Brazilian players, and wish that Washington had a spot like this.
We see other visitors from Washington the next morning as well, at Woodberry Kitchen, the only Baltimore restaurant to make Tom Sietsema's 2012 Fall Dining Guide. The wait staff looks as if they've walked out of a rural outpost of Calvin Klein, and the food transcends the city's identity crisis. Tucked away in a converted millhouse near the Hampden neighborhood, the restaurant offers locally sourced fare with a down-home aesthetic, the intoxicating smell of a wood-burning oven and the kind of solid, no-gimmicks food you'd expect to find in, say, Berkeley, Brentwood or Bethesda.
The Clipper Mill redevelopment that houses the restaurant feels nothing like Hampden's main drag, 36th Street, a collection of antiques, vintage clothing and furnishings shops that is very serious about not taking itself seriously. Hampden — which Forbes recently declared America's 15th "hippest hipster neighborhood" (Washington's H Street corridor came in sixth) — is famously home to Cafe Hon and Hon Town, kitschy showcases of Baltimore's image as a place where the values, fashions and pop sensibilities of the 1950s and '60s still reign. (Hon Town, a themed souvenir shop, styles its home town as "Bawlmer, Murlin.")
Luckily, that beehive of kitsch doesn't infect the entire neighborhood, which is dotted with places like Minas, where painter Minas Konsolas displays his art in a gallery above his enticing collection of vintage clothes (selling at about half the price they'd go for in Washington thrifts). Here, or at spots such as the Parisian Flea, a calming collection of jewelry and tchotchkes that will carry you back to almost any decade of the last century, the struggle between authenticity and self-consciousness fades away. On the sidewalk, locals in Ravens jerseys banter with visitors from the suburbs and beyond. In the shops, conversation comes easily, with far less of the formality that can make Washington seem stiff.
I end up caring a lot less about what's real and what's kitsch than I do about the comfort of a town that has managed to stay easy and open despite the evident urban tensions of class, race and development. Baltimore is changing, but so far it's still affordable, distinctive and grounded.
I wouldn't want to live there, but what a place to explore.