The other day, on the north side of the city, I stopped to look at an unusual project and immediately recognized it as metaphor. There, I said it. I put it right in front of you. I found a metaphor for Baltimore in the 3900 block of Roland Avenue.
Of course, I was in the mood for metaphor. Like me, residents of Baltimore, Our City of Perpetual Recovery, constantly look for signs of life, hope for the future and all that. It’s essential for citizen wellness. Sometimes, in the search for shiny objects among the wreckage of the city, a good metaphor appears.
As I said, you have to be in the mood. But that’s easy these days with the depressing and constant violence, the lame duck mayoralty, the long string of political humiliations, the loss of local business because of the pandemic, and a nasty president disparaging us to the world. The shootings and killings overshadow almost everything; by now, the city has become identified with crime more than all else. It’s the reliable, go-to talk of talk radio.
Maryland’s suburban governor, the one who stopped multibillion-dollar transit and redevelopment projects intended to help the city, now cracks about running for mayor so he can solve our persistent problem. Such a quipster, that Larry Hogan, making a little joke on WBAL while violence continues — five teenagers shot dead this month — and while the police and people in neighborhoods and nonprofits do the real work to try and arrest the crime that occurs even during the pandemic.
Or maybe it’s no joke. Maybe, now that Hogan has planted the idea, there will be a mass movement of Republicans from suburbs to the city; they could refill the parts their parents and grandparents abandoned once the Supreme Court called racial segregation in the public schools unconstitutional, and all will be charming again. There’s safety in numbers. We could use 200,000 more residents.
Not so much, right?
Of course, rather than move here, or even visit, sneering doomsayers prefer to ridicule Baltimore every chance they get — in Facebook posts and profane tweets, in phone calls to talk shows, in snarky conversations with the like minded.
And, while they can’t vote for her, they cheer on a Republican in stilettos who comes out of nowhere to claim that, if elected, she’ll go to Congress to save the city. She doesn’t live in the district she wants to represent and her party has scant interest in urban problems, but that doesn’t seem to matter to her supporters. “Owning the libs” is the point.
And then there is the awful president who, in his darkly negative twittering about Baltimore, claimed “no human being would want to live there,” though nearly 600,000 of us do.
So it’s all that — all that reality and the snark that accompanies it — that makes me stand in the middle of the street in the light rain and, for the moment, see in wooden bracing the great metaphor for Baltimore in 2020.
The braces went up at buttressing angles early this week to support the facades of eight rowhouses that have been vacant for more than two years.
On a windy day in April 2018, a fire started on the roof of one of the homes and spread down the block. All the homes were condemned and the families that lived there, some of them for generations, had to move on.
In some parts of town, where there’s already a lot of abandonment, such houses might never be saved or restored; they’d be left for dead and eventually torn down.
But, elsewhere in the city, efforts are being made to save the old, vacant homes all the time. I’ve seen it in Broadway East. I’ve seen it in southwest Baltimore, in Franklin Square and Harlem Park. In just about every case, the city reroofed and stabilized the properties until a new owner emerged at auction.
That wasn’t the case with the eight homes on Roland Avenue on the edge of Hampden, something that was obvious from observation but also confirmed by Tim Walsh, the contractor who plans on redeveloping three of the homes. (The other five have been acquired by another investor, Josh Mente, who also hopes to redevelop his properties.)
They have big plans for the place and are eager to get to work before any more damage occurs. The interiors of the old houses were destroyed in the fire and the rains that followed, but the end walls and the facade survived.
It was the buttressing of the facades that struck me metaphorical.
Sometimes it just seems easier to tear everything down and start over. It seems the fastest route to redevelopment (though I could take you downtown and show you a big, five-year-old hole where the Mechanic Theater used to be that proves otherwise).
But I admire the attempt to save the facades along Roland Avenue. It states a belief in the future we’re looking for. It shows some respect for the past. The buttressing urges patience and more patience — if we can just hold on, and hold on even longer, things will be better on the other side. We’ve had some bad luck, and a run of awful these last few years, but let’s keep everything from falling down and falling apart. I stand there in the light rain, marveling at the wooden bracing and at my city — determined, stubborn, still standing.