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Dancing the Patapsco Tango

At the bus stop at Maryland and North, a middle-aged guy named Frank — I know his first name immediately from the patch on his uniform shirt — greets me in the sunshine of Friday morning. It's a beautiful day in Baltimore, and Frank is headed to work, and that's the good news. He spent several months looking for a job before finally landing one at Jiffy Lube. But here's the bad news: Frank hasn't had a steady income long enough to keep up with his rent, so he's facing eviction; to avoid eviction, he spends his spare time visiting charities looking for help. He says he's raised about half what he owes.

That's the brief version of the Frank Hogarth story. That's the story of Baltimore, too, the way I've been thinking about it lately. I've been thinking about it as a city in perpetual recovery, always trying to make a comeback from some kind of setback, and having a tough time of it. If we had an official dance, it would be the Patapsco Tango — one step forward, two steps back.

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One minute a guy's telling me about his good fortune in landing a job at Jiffy Lube; the next minute he's telling me about an eviction notice.

One minute I'm chatting with tourists visiting the Inner Harbor; the next I'm watching dirt-bikers pop wheelies at Pratt and Light, with no cops in sight. The tourists are shocked.

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One minute someone's talking about a great new Mexican restaurant in Remington; the next brings a Tweet about the city's latest homicide.

At one moment, I hear details about an impressive conversion of the old Hochschild-Kohn warehouse on Park Avenue into apartments and a retail marketplace, another positive development in a Baltimore renaissance that somehow continues despite the disturbances and violence since Freddie Gray's death.

But — and there's always a but — in the next moment, comes news of another insane shooting in West Baltimore. In this one, a bullet grazed 93-year-old Clara Bea Canty as she sat on her front steps. A young man died in the shooting; he was one of three homicides that day.

"So many things about the last few months are shocking and sad," a friend wrote in an email the next day. "But that one really got to me."

A few weeks after Gray's funeral and the riot that followed, I stood on a corner in Old Goucher admiring a great, healthy tree that I had never noticed before. It bounced in the soft breeze and gave off a pleasant fragrance. Then, I walked half a block and passed a filthy couch in an alley that smelled of urine. I called 311, the city's non-emergency service line, to report the couch. Next day, the couch was gone. The day after that, there was a pile of trash in the same spot.

That's how it goes in Baltimore: Never perfect or simple, always missing a tooth, always scarred, a little broken, and offering experiences that can range from extremely delightful to extremely depressing.

Sometimes you hear and see things, and you can't believe they've occurred in the same city. That's true of a lot of cities, but I think the condition is particularly acute here, and you don't have to possess a medical degree to pick up on that.

I've made this observation in about 50 different ways over the years. Baltimore's multiple personality disorder stems from its size and its population. It is a sprawling city, from its eastern edge to its western border and from its leafy northern boundaries to its southern toes along the water's edge.

In 1960, Baltimore was the nation's sixth-largest city. Over the next four decades, it experienced breathtaking population loss before it started to reach relative stability. The latest census had 622,793 of us living on the same land occupied by 940,000 people 55 years ago.

By 2012, the massive abandonment of houses left about 15 percent of Baltimore's 202,000 residential properties empty — that is, either officially vacant or just unoccupied, with no mail delivery, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

After so many people moved out, all kinds of negative trends took hold and festered for years. The city is smaller and poorer — you know all that by now — so it follows that Baltimore would break into extremes. Some parts of the city thrive; some wither and collapse. I'm very familiar with the contrasts, but still amazed by them.

I walked through Locust Point recently and found luxury apartments under construction, and rowhouses being renovated. I drove past a newly shingled home near Hampden and noted the really fine workmanship. I noted the handsome, well-maintained homes along Liberty Heights Avenue, northwest of Baltimore City Community College.

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But a turn down some of the side streets, between Liberty Heights and Park Heights, brought fresh shock: once-grand, single-family homes left to the weeds with accumulating trash, sagging porches, collapsing roofs.

Two blocks good, one block bad, one step forward, two steps back …

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