Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Monday, December 01, 2008

Unfamiliar Sights

Holidays afford a routine return to familiar territory that is the perfect opportunity to change perspective. Countless times I have zoomed up I-95 -- the interstate highway, the ultimate American non-place [link via this excellent repository] -- and into Baltimore. I mark my entrance by that smoke stack, this solitary remnant of heavy industry on life support that is as much a cultural symbol of the city, a tourism board's welcome sign, as it the machinery of a factory.

Swooping over the Middle River and either branching off into downtown or continuing under the harbor, this elevated stretch of interchanges and off-ramps dazzles the eye. The water, the shipyard, the Key Bridge, the neighborhoods fanning out from downtown, and the city's modest skyline all compete for attention. It is a microcosm of the northeastern city, serving up a feast for hungry urban eyes.

But with the encroachment of non-places like I-95 that funnel in suburbanites, dumping them at the city's faux-historical economic engine, the Inner Harbor, comes the shadow of the highway trusses looming over forgotten neighborhoods. What haven't I seen in all those years of traveling into Baltimore by car?

I've given up on private car ownership, and when coming from outside the city now feel reluctant to bring a new private automobile into it. Call it moral congestion pricing. So on Friday, I parked at the edge of D.C. and took the Metro, taking advantage of late night weekend service. On Saturday, I took that game plan to Baltimore, hoping to take transit in a state notoriously hostile to it.

My M.O. was the Baltimore light rail, which snakes from BWI Airport and southern inner ring suburbs through downtown, heading north to its terminus at ex-shopping mall/current "town centre" Hunt Valley. I swore allegiance to the MBTA for four years, am doggedly loyal to SEPTA, and even keep subway porn on my coffee table, yet never have I taken Baltimore's tentative steps toward effective public transportation.

As the train crept north, I was particulary interested in seeing the vast hive of concrete and waterways around the Middle River from surface level. The trip did not disappoint, as I discovered two neighborhoods hidden in the shadow of I-95 and I-295. The first, Westport, is in fact cleaved by the latter highway. It is a tiny, down on its heels enclave of rowhouses, now poised for massive redevelopment by the light rail stop. A developer plans a giant high-rise complex with hotel rooms, office space, condos, and retail, which strikes me as a contrast of urban luxury and poverty of Mumbai proportions. While I certainly favor transit-oriented development, as this surely will force heavier usage of the light rail at its doorstep, I'm left with grave concerns about how such a development will interact with the existing neighborhood. Job training? Or the equally likely gated entrances, private security, and surveillance cameras? If there even is a neighborhood left, given the money that starts being put on the table to feed the "insatiable demand for homes on or near the water."


Eerie overtones of the Johns Hopkins hospital in East Baltimore, which looms like a citadel over the struggling neighborhoods at its feet. Town-[hospital] gown tensions run constantly.

Next stop: Cherry Hill. In another overlooked corner by those of us whose itineraries are circumscribed by highway routes, I found the nation's first planned community for African-Americans, designed to house WWII veterans. Sadly, it experienced rapid post-war disinvestment and decay, with the veterans' homes becoming public housing. But just across the water from Westport, the planners have come back as more waterfront property becomes enticing. An active neighborhood group ("A great neighborhood -- getting even better!) catalogues the ongoing development of the Cherry Hill master plan, which remains contentious in the community.

Later that night, I was listening to the Audio Infusion on WEAA. The DJ announced a caller from Cherry Hill and I smiled in recognition. The next morning, on the road in the I-95 morass, I craned my neck to catch a newly familiar sight, the stately Baltimore Rowing Club on the Middle River, with Cherry Hill fanning out behind it. New routes lead to new discoveries.

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