The city of my birth
has problems but promise,
reflecting urban America
Let's take a ride for the 'Ettlin Tour'
In September 1814 -- two and a half weeks after burning and ransacking Washington -- thousands of soldiers and sailors in the military of English King George III attacked Baltimore. But the defenders proved far stronger than anticipated, and the city endured. Some would say it saved the young nation after the bombardment that inspired the eventual National Anthem.
In July 2019 -- just over three weeks after a speech in which he confused events of the Revolutionary War with the conflict a generation later -- would-be American King Donny the First also attacked Baltimore, in a bombardment of words.
The result was predictable, because this city -- despite its many problems -- has no shortage of defenders. And herein, I join them.
I was born in Baltimore, raised near the famous Pimlico race course, and lived in the city for but a few months of my first 35 years. And when I left, I didn't go far... just about 17 miles to the south for the sake of a large, tree-shaded yard, quality public schools for the kids, and close to the camera business then owned by my new wife.
For the 38 years since that move, Baltimore may not have been home. But it remained the center of our universe. Friends and family live there or nearby, and in retirement our cultural life is focused there. And when we have visitors from afar, many from other countries, or meet new friends, I offer them an experience known as "the Ettlin tour" drawn from my knowledge as a native and, for 40 years, local news journalist at the Baltimore Sun. The tour for decades was part of the orientation for new hires in the newsroom... even for new publishers.
From Sandtown to Guilford, the Great Divide
I show off the best and worst of Baltimore, from the poverty-mired Sandtown slums and source of the 2015 Freddie Gray uprising to the mansions and gardens of ritzy Guilford. Baltimore well illustrates the enormous gulf between rich and poor in the United States of America.
Most of Baltimore's some 620,000 residents exist in the middle of that economic chasm, probably more of them in the lower middle of the income spectrum. And since the peak population and industry era of the 1950s, when Baltimore topped out around a million strong, the complexion of its ever-smaller population has darkened. It is a majority black city. And there is not an issue facing the city that does not have a racial aspect... schools, policing, economic development, housing, health, welfare, politics.
|Inner Harbor promenade|
With that as a backdrop, we drive on my tour through the extremes and in-betweens. But first we marvel at a gleaming city from the hill -- Federal Hill, which affords the "signature view" of Baltimore's still-growing economic heart around the Inner Harbor.
History is all around. I point to the right, where Fort McHenry still stands sentinel around the Patapsco River's bend, and talk about the Star-Spangled Banner. And over there, at about 2'clock across the harbor but out of sight, is the restored President Street Station and Pratt Street where Union soldiers summoned to Washington to defend the nation's capital in 1861 were greeted by a mob of Southern-sympathizing attackers. At least a dozen people, including three solders, were killed and many more injured in the Pratt Street Riot, the first casualties of the Civil War.
Our vantage point on the hill was occupied thereafter by Union troops, cannons aimed at the city center, to neutralize Baltimore for the war's duration. With its location below the Mason-Dixon Line considered the nation's geographic border between North and South, Baltimore then and still could be viewed as the most northern city of the South or most southern city of the North.
The view takes in the terraced apartments of the old, transformed red-brick Scarlett Seed Co., which decades ago began the slow-to-develop trend of condo real estate in Baltimore; the city's World Trade Center (which has its own great viewpoint on the 27th floor); Harborplace, symbolic but fading jewel of the Inner Harbor dream of the late mayor and governor William Donald Schaefer; the Hyatt Hotel (also pushed by Schaefer and backed by a quasi-city city development loan guarantee, at a time when the Holiday Inn was jokingly viewed as the city's best hotel); the lighting towers and upper reaches of two major sports stadiums; the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center; the Columbus Center, failed as a tourist attraction but now where the University of Maryland explores marine sciences; the quirky American Visionary Art Museum; and finally the rowhouses that once could be bought for a song but now rise steeply from the upper $200,000s.
Home to Nancy Pelosi and Frederick Douglass
And that's just the start of the tour. We drive around the harbor and east past the still-rising office and apartment buildings of pricey Harbor East; rowhouse neighborhoods like Little Italy, where U.S. House Speaker Nancy D'Alesandro Pelosi -- daughter and sister of city mayors "Big Tommy" and "Little Tommy" -- was born and raised; little Dallas Street, where an early developer of some still-standing rowhouses was Frederick Douglass (he lived for a time at 524 South Dallas); the historic port neighborhood of Fells Point, where what is believed the oldest city residence dates to the 1760s; and past the burgeoning waterfront homes, condos and marinas of Canton.
We turn south on Clinton Street, still a working port area, where a view across the water takes in Fort McHenry and its 15-star flag, and we pass the berthed and Baltimore-built John Brown, one of two surviving Liberty Ships that ferried troops overseas in World War II and lovingly restored by veterans. Also of note, a nondescript and vacant old building that was the base of the wiretap cops in David Simon's HBO series "The Wire." (Sadly, many people think of the Baltimore in that great series as Baltimore when its depiction of the drug culture, police good and bad, dying industry, poverty-mired schools and neighborhoods, racial politics and compromised news is fiction derived from just a part of the city's many realities.)
We head uphill on Clinton Street to higher ground, the neighborhood of Highlandtown (or as locals might say, "Hollantown"). Here we are squarely in the economic middle ground, a mix of gentrification, hispanic newcomers, shop-lined commercial arteries, and the old Patterson movie house reborn as the Creative Alliance arts center, of which wife Bonnie and I are members. Often, we take visitors inside to view its current gallery displays, and occasionally encounter one of the half-dozen artists who have residency there.
We drive a short way up East Avenue from the arts center and turn left two blocks to a place of history -- the eastern end of sprawling Patterson Park, an area once called Hampstead Hill that was part of the dug-in defensive line where Baltimore's 1814 defenders halted the British land advance into the city. It is hallowed ground, and also affords a view from the east of the 2019 skyline.
|Johns Hopkins Hospital dome|
Then we head west, making a few turns to drive past the Collington Avenue rowhouses where my late mother grew up in the 1920s. Late in her life, I drove her there to marvel at how one of the houses (her father lost one for tax debt, then rented the other two doors away) had been enlarged, restored and was for sale at a price approaching $400,000. Three large bedrooms, each with a whirlpool bath and fireplace, and central air among the features in a house where she and some of her 11 full, half- and step-siblings had lived. (In the heat of summer, they slept in the cooler environs of the park.)
The next target is Broadway, driving north past Johns Hopkins Hospital's growing complex and its two oldest buildings -- Hopkins being one of the world's finest medical institutions and, with the university campus several miles away and various other operations, Baltimore's biggest employer.
|American Brewery towers over Gay Street corridor ghost town.|
Echoes of 1968 on Gay Street
So enough of the great stuff. We turn right on Gay Street, a diagonal artery heading northeasterly and spine of many distressed streets. And we talk about its history mostly as a black neighborhood in the 20th Century and one of several focal points in the rioting and destruction sparked by the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and years of economic deprivation. This is always part of the tour, and increasingly in recent years, many of the decayed houses and burned-out buildings have been leveled and given way to grassy vacant lots. There is now a senior center, and across the street a restored landmark -- the spooky, towering, long vacant 1877 American Brewery building now home to a foundation focused on job development for the poor.
About 22 years ago, I took newly-arrived Baltimore Sun publisher Mike Waller and a couple of other newspaper executives through this neighborhood -- then far worse than today -- and was asked what I would do to address its problems. My response: "A fleet of bulldozers and a really good city planner."
The clearing at the top of Gay Street has come at a much slower pace, but turn around, look back toward the city center and imagine creation of a planned, mixed-income neighborhood overlooking that skyline, perhaps with a limited light rail link, shopping, small businesses. But for now, the land goes begging a vision.
|Mural artist Michael Owen offered love to Baltimore.|
We've been out and about for more than two hours at this point, and seen a lot of good -- and some bad -- of Baltimore. But there's a lot more ground to cover, and lunch, so my tour unfortunately bypasses numerous residential neighborhoods running for miles along the Belair and Harford roads corridors.
Sometimes I take my visitors across North Avenue, other times toward 33rd street -- the latter for a drive-by of my alma mater, Baltimore City College (Class of '63), third-oldest public high school in the nation and, since the late 1920s, occupying a gothic castle-like building on a hill whose tower, owing to its geographic location, is the highest vantage point in the city. By tradition, students graduating are afforded a stroll up some 180 steps to the tower roof, past graffiti left by predecessors and the chalky poop of countless pigeons. For many, the school song remains fresh in memory: "City Forever."
33rd Street also was the site of Memorial Stadium, home of the Baltimore Colts, briefly the Ravens, and from 1954 through 1991 the Orioles. Now called Stadium Place, the tract includes mixed-income and senior housing, a nursing center and a YMCA.
We reach Greenmount Avenue -- its name drawn from the historic cemetery of rich and well-connected white folks dating back nearly two centuries, Green Mount, near its southern end, and where as time allows we stop to see the graves of Sun founder Arunah Shepherdson Abell, wealthy businessman and university benefactor Johns Hopkins, and Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth (whose believed plot, in the essence of Baltimore irony, is adorned with Lincoln pennies).
Across the street is Greenmount West, a neighborhood brought back from the edge of collapse and many houses restored as an arts community. Walls along area streets feature many jaw-dropping murals. An abandoned clothing factory formerly noted for ghostly rows of dust-covered suits was reborn as a school of design, and a corner building offers apartments to artists with limited income.
We turn up Calvert Street, past large rowhouses dating from the early 1900s. (I first met Bonnie as neighbors in apartments at 2935 North Calvert in 1966, and owned 2937 in the late 1970s -- blowing through two marriages and living with an assortment of zany friends who helped fill its eight bedrooms. Sadly the house, known as Toad Hall, was recently turned into apartments, most of its original features stripped away.)
The neighborhood was originally called Peabody Heights, but renamed Charles Village largely through the influence of its late resident and Baltimore Evening Sun copy editor Grace Darin, who published a newsletter called The Charles Villager in the 1960s. The name caught on, and the neighborhood two miles north of the city center -- anchored by such neighbors as Johns Hopkins' Homewood academic campus, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Union Memorial Hospital -- has remained popular. I bought my house there for $35,000 around 1975, and sold it in 1980 for $64,000. Comparable properties now run close to $350,000.
|Sherwood Gardens in bloom|
A window on the universe
Back to University Parkway, we turn left on San Martin Drive. It curves through an edge of the Hopkins campus above Stony Run and past the Steven Muller Building -- named for a former university president and home to the Space Telescope Institute. This is the land base of the Hubble, astronomers' window into unfathomable reaches of the universe. Most people in Baltimore likely have no idea it's here.
A few right turns and a left take us to the quirky realm of Hampden, a working-class neighborhood increasingly occupied and influenced by people in the arts. The heart is the commercial length of 36th Street (and often my tour stops for lunch there at the Hon Cafe on "The Avenue"), but from Thanksgiving to New Year's the place to see is 34th Street and the city's most famous display of lights and unusual decorations (like a hubcap tree, a flock of pink lawn flamingos, crabs and the one-eyed mascot of cheap Natty Boh beer).
|Miracle on 34th Street|
On Falls Road, at the western end of 36th, the shops include Atomic Books -- a quirky store with unusual offerings including local arts 'zines, comics, and Baltimoreana. It is also the mailing address for the local filmmaker and cultural maverick John Waters, and thus a place to find autographed copies of his books and movies.
The tour goes north on Falls Road, named for and parallel to the Jones Falls stream running through a green valley from the north and emptying into the harbor, then westward on Northern Parkway across the valley, past Sinai Hospital (which moved here around 1960 from my eastside birthplace near the Hopkins medical complex), and Pimlico Race Course, home for more than a century to the Preakness Stakes, second jewel in American thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
My neighborhood, a then-and-now
Once a haven of the very middle class, the Northwest Baltimore neighborhoods along Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road are troubled these days. So we weave through side streets below Pimlico, exploring and talking about what was then, and seeing what is now -- rowhouses mostly in various states of decay, some occupied, some empty and crumbling. It has been changing in recent years, with increasing numbers of unsalvageable properties now bare grass lots.
An apartment complex that was the scene of multiple murders and drug arrests was condemned and demolished. A row that included a 1930s house with a wooden Star of David decorating the end of a lower roof is gone. The row of storefront buildings on Park Heights that included Harry Der's laundry, where I took and picked up my father's shirts, and the candy store where I spent my pennies, is just a memory.
But still standing sentinel over the neighborhood is the substantial stone presence of St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church. Its parochial school was closed as the archdiocese reduced the size of its education system. And a priest no longer there started and lent its name to a low-income housing aid program that still exists decades later.
|Friend Stacey Patton, interviewing residents at Alcott Place|
Heading south on either artery takes us past mostly challenged streets to Keyworth Avenue, where my Louisa May Alcott School No. 59 survives -- after years of vacancy, the 1910-vintage building was lovingly turned into subsidized senior housing called Alcott Place nearly three decades ago. Like the neighborhood, its residents are nearly all African-American, and their building is immaculate. Each classroom was turned into an efficiency apartment. An empty space under the roof was turned into a fourth-floor community and computer center. In the midst of streets of Third-Worldly decay and chaos, Alcott Place is a haven of decent and safe housing and community where people watch out for each other.
I have stopped there several times, including two years ago when I brought along the well-known Baltimore writer and radio personality Gilbert Sandler -- a graduate there 24 years before me. We had the same first-grade teacher, both growing up in a world very different from the decay and mayhem that afflicts the rough parts of the city.
|Where I come from, 3424 Royce Ave.|
Gilbert was reluctant about visiting his street, Cottage Avenue, a mile to the south off Park Heights, fearing danger. I assured him we were fine, safe at least in daylight. We turned a corner at Ulman Avenue, and there on the sidewalk was a memorial to a murder victim, shot to death on that spot a few nights earlier. We drove past the house where he was born and raised; it was vacant and boarded. That distressed him. His voice choked a little as he pointed to the sidewalk. "I had a lemonade stand there." (Gilbert died in December, at age 95, but his archived Baltimore stories still air Friday mornings on WYPR-FM.)
The worst shore, and the Reagan connection
Here in lower Park Heights is the conception of Baltimore underlying -- along with a measure of racism -- Donald Trump's condemnation of my city. Here in this neighborhood, where low-income people, mostly in rental housing under-tended by absentee landlords, do their best to survive in an America on the worst shore of the economic gulf.
But on the tour, we are just passing through.
Park Heights merges with Reisterstown Road at the northwestern edge of massive Druid Hill Park at a junction called Park Circle -- and nearby into the 1950s was Carlin's amusement park, swimming pool and ice rink. Part of its site became home to Baltimore's only black-owned Hospital, Provident, which eventually vanished in a state-ordered merger with another inner-city hospital.
Overlooking the intersection is the Dietz & Watson meat-packaging plant, successor here to the relocated home of the black-owned Parks Sausage Co. on land designated as an economic "enterprise zone" by the Ronald Reagan administration in 1982 and visited by the president. The White House, according to news reports, noted the area was home to about 44,000 mostly poor people.
On a side street blocks away is the little Towanda neighborhood playfield and its wading pool, scenes of some earliest memories. The houses around it are in disarray, neglect and abandonment having left them looking post-apocalyptic.
|For sale on Towanda Ave.|
We continue south on Park Heights, past Druid Hill (Droodle, many locals say) -- home to a botanical conservatory, the Maryland Zoo, picnic grounds, ballfields and frisbee golf. (As the president was unleashing his weekend tweet storm of "people living in hell in Baltimore," hundreds were spread out in happy picnic parties and family gatherings across the park.
Druid Hill's old reservoir is currently a mess, under reconstruction -- its fountain gone. Half a century ago, the body of a missing woman had been found inside that fountain, which was surrounded by water... still one of my favorite unsolved Baltimore mysteries, and an inspiration underlying a just-published novel by former newspaper colleague and friend Laura Lippman, "Lady in the Lake."
Further south is Mondawmin, built in the 1950s as one of the nation's first urban shopping malls, where Reisterstown Road meets Liberty Heights Avenue -- the latter name immortalized in the title of one of filmmaker and local native Barry Levinson's Baltimore movies ("Liberty Heights," "Diner," "Avalon" and "Tin Men"). The shopping center has seen better days, and it was the ignition point of the 2015 rioting that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray -- whose neck apparently was broken during a ride in a police van after his arrest by city police.
Bill Clinton was here
We head northwesterly on Liberty Heights, about half a mile past the campus of Baltimore City Community College (another alma mater, from when it was called Baltimore Junior College), and a right turn into yet another Baltimore neighborhood -- Ashburton. Once largely upscale Jewish in population, and now largely black, I offer it as more proof that race cannot define community. Much of Ashburton features owner-occupied, well-maintained homes. Baltimore's first elected black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, former dean of the Howard University law school and now president of the University of Baltimore, lived in this community. President Bill Clinton visited Schmoke's house for a fundraising gathering.
Then we cross Liberty Heights to turn up Hilton Street, then onto Gwynns Falls Parkway to Windsor Hills. Just before I turn right onto Windsor Mill Road, I ask my passengers to close their eyes for 10 seconds. Because I am going to make the city disappear. We have reached the roadway through Leakin and Gwynns Falls parks -- the closest Baltimore has to wilderness. Leakin Park has a bad reputation as a dumping ground for the bodies of murder victims. Once upon a time, it was well-deserved. But you rarely hear of such acts these days. Killers don't seem to bother anymore. Their victims are left where they fall. In "The Wire," some are disposed of in vacant houses. Maybe that happens, too. Rarely.
Windsor Mill leads to Forest Park Avenue, and the entrance to another surprise -- the neighborhood of Dickeyville, whose mill origins date to the late 1700s and which features old houses covered by historic covenants restricting changes. The entrance is from quaintly-named Wetheredsville Road, which was severed by flooding in a 1970s storm and, by local preference, not reopened for through traffic. The community looks every bit like a Vermont village, hard to imagine as part of Baltimore.
Back down Forest Park, briefly crossing the city-Baltimore County border, we reach the city end of Security Boulevard. A right turn would take you toward the national headquarters of the Social Security Administration, one of Maryland's largest employers. Its computers are so enormous that the complex has emergency generators to take strain off the regional power grid during extreme weather crises.
But we turn left, back into the city past tidy brick rowhouses on the edge of a neighborhood called Ten Hills. (I haven't counted, but am guessing that's about right.) Then we reach the western end of Edmondson Avenue before turning into the most charming section of Ten Hills -- almost a mini-Guilford with ornate cottages and brick homes, big lawns and curving lanes that belie the common conception of West Baltimore as a slum.
On the other side, at the end of Ten Hills, it's downhill to Frederick Avenue and southerly back toward the city center. Often I turn right on Marydell Road, the Irvington neighborhood street where the late Sun reporter and famed New York Times columnist Russell Baker moved with his family as a child and eloquently described in his Pulitzer-winning memoir, "Growing Up." The family lived in the last house on the right, he told me, remembering that its basement flooded during big storms.
It's not far from Maiden Choice Run, which flooded so badly during tropical storm Agnes in 1972 that residents of basement apartments along Frederick Avenue had to flee for their lives. The danger has prompted extensive flood-control measures along the stream.
Continuing along Frederick Avenue, we pass numerous challenged neighborhoods, much like lower Park Heights -- some of the city's most dangerous and decayed -- in a vast stretch between this southwestern artery and the mid-line spine of North Avenue. The route spills into Pratt Street, past a fading mural, concealed by tree growth, of idealized postcard-style images of city life and scenery including children black and white playing basketball together. And near the western edge of downtown we come upon the great Mount Clare roundhouse of the old B&O -- near the birthplace of American railroading and centerpiece of a railroad museum. It's possible to turn into the parking lot and drive around a few of the historic locomotives.
|A scene at Troy Staton's annual block party|
A safety zone that briefly wasn't
Up nearby Arlington Avenue is Hollins Market -- one of half a dozen public markets where stalls are rented by merchants selling fresh food and other items. And cater-corner at Arlington and Hollins Street is the New Beginnings barbershop, whose owner Troy Staton tends to the hair needs of his chiefly African-American clientele and oversees his own art gallery there. Too many people in the inner city have never been exposed to art in museums, he says -- so he brings art to them. (His personal collection of African-American art was displayed in a gallery show at the suburban Stevenson University.) He also partners with institutions that provide free health screenings, and the shop plays host to community meetings often moderated by his son Rashad, the family's first college graduate as an alumnus of the city's historically black Morgan State University.
Troy holds an annual free street party there, supported by donors and corporate sponsors and serving up a meal to as many as 200 people.
It seems a safety zone. But there have been scary moments -- like a Friday afternoon several years ago when a young man caught up in the drug trade was shot to death on Troy's corner. And last Halloween, while he was cutting hair, a still-unknown masked youth walked inside with a gun and opened fire. His customer sustained a foot wound, and Troy was hit three times in his neck. Luckily, all graze wounds -- an inch or two difference, and he could have been killed. God spared him, Troy said, because he still has good work to do. The barbershop shooting became front-page news.
Unfortunately, news skews toward the bad. The tour is broader. We talk about history, the prejudicial steering of housing patterns enforced by government and economic interests (as recounted in my friend Antero Pietila's book "Not in My Neighborhood"), the selective investment in neighborhood redevelopment and shunning of others, the sociological challenges of urban America and disintegration of family structures.
And after about six hours and 55 miles of driving, the tour is done.
I've been urged for years to write about the Ettlin Tour. But it was the ill-conceived and racist rant by the man who would be King Donny the First, targeting Congressman Elijah Cummings and Baltimore, that finally made me do it.
Let's remember his words.
Trump called Cummings "a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA."
Trump (maybe I'll start calling him tRant) also tweeted, "As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place."
He threatened to investigate the federal funds sent to Cummings' district, and said that "no human being would want to live there."
After 38 years planted in a suburb, I look at city houses listed for sale -- even toured one across the street from Druid Hill Park's botanical conservatory last week. It was built in 1920, three-story blonde brick, architecturally similar to my old house on Calvert Street, restored, central air added, garage in back. But maybe it's a fantasy. This one had more stairs than our legs could deal with much longer, and the adjoining house in the row is rotting at the seams. Two blocks away, there's a street where of late there's been gunfire, murder and utility poles adorned with limp memorial balloons and rain-soaked teddy bears.
It's priced at $400,000, with a historical preservation benefit freezing the property tax at rock bottom for a decade. Won't be us, here on one of Baltimore's urban frontiers. But someone out there is going to buy it. The city has problems, for sure -- and plenty of promise.
(Blogger David M. Ettlin retired in 2007 after 40 years in local news at the Baltimore Sun, and made a cameo appearance playing himself in three episodes of "The Wire." His wife, Bonnie J. Schupp, whose pictures grace this post, was raised in Northeast Baltimore, taught language arts in the city and Anne Arundel County, owned a camera shop in Severna Park and wrote a newspaper column on photography for the old Baltimore Evening Sun. They have lived in suburban Pasadena since 1981.)