Few people really know my secret: that I was born and bred with the New York skyline just out of sight, a prickling crown sitting just so on the horizon. Yet this suburban empire has never felt right; it’s a den of ghosts, of half-remembered memories, like cuttings on the editor’s floor.
Being there again I feel sick inside, haunted. I have no books, few photos, and no ties left to the people that still live here. Like the creeping green vines in humid high summer, the person I once was is slowly being covered, condemned, fading at the side of the road.
It’s not my home anymore.
But drive south where the summers are pinker, the vowels get longer and history rolls from the bounty of the sea. It is here that I feel closer than virtually any place else.
The sun beat down like a hammer from hell, scorching the eyes and searing the skin. It bounced from the sidewalk in shimmering waves, and I counted down the seconds before I would burst into flames. Inside the black box I envisioned the film curling into useless, melted goo. Luckily, my imagination is wilder than I think.
It’s been so long since this city has had its heyday, I wonder if anybody here still remembers that there ever was one. Storefronts once clean and closed are but faded husks 40 years later. Houses watch over the street, not with deep black eyes but yellow plywood stares. They gawp, shocked, as if their crumbling walls were some ghastly surprise.
Time is measured in deaths, in hate, in crime.
What is it about these fringes that fascinates me so much? It’s partly the danger, partly the gristly spectator sport of seeing of Baltimore in its most hopeless, raw underbelly. But most of all, it’s the slow free-fall of these neighborhoods that both quickens the blood and makes you want to cry.
A quick Google Search for a West Baltimore street address turns up a few historic images, gruesomely optimistic real estate photos and meeting minutes from community boards, including a vast spreadsheet of all known vacant homes. I open the last and am astounded at the disorder and length of this list. But I scroll, and keep scrolling, and keep scrolling still. So many empty shells (over 16,000 ), so many holes in our history. There is still so much to this city that can’t be fixed.
There are ghosts on the streets. Some are faded smiles and dead promises painted high on the brick. Some are the shuttered houses that line the streets, a thousand empty coffins of time. And the rest are in the people, as real in flesh and blood as you and me, but living in an untouchable world, an unknowable life. I felt their gazes and their presence at my back, measured and watching.
It is uplifting then, to see so much change less than two miles away. New storefronts, shiny bars, tourists packing in the shops like there’s no tomorrow (or like there’s no heat). The heart of this city beats lounder than ever before and I’m caught in the whirlwind of new life. New money. I take a seat at a new old bar, next to all the clean, drunk people. I feel like I’ve know them all before from raucous nights in White Marsh or Towson, from lacross games, campuses and concerts. There’s a familiarity here that helps me settle in and fall headfirst into memory’s embrace.
From ashes to rebirth in a single day, I’m comforted knowing that Baltimore will never be truly defeated. It is a city I would one day be honored to call home again because of this testament to its progress and enduring spirit.
Wait for it, World – this place I knew has one more heyday still yet to come.*