Madison Smartt Bell Kinda/Sorta Perambulates The City
This book is part of the Crown Journeys series, which takes writers such as Christopher Buckley, Myla Goldberg, and Chuck Palahniuk and plops them down in the middle of their city of choice for a constitutional, with unclear objectives. Are they meant to be social anthropologists? Geographers? Urban historians? Mouthpieces for the tourist board?
In Charm City: A Walk Through Baltimore, local novelist Madison Smartt Bell dabbles in all of these roles, but above all the dates and directions and descriptions of the bars and restaurants that he visits rises a voice of cynical nostalgia and complaint. He's constantly describing things that used to be in the places he passes by, shakes his head at the march of development and gentrification, and generally sneers--usually with a sneering friend by his side--at a population of people he regards as tourists who don't understand the city, its culture, its tradition, its whatever.
Bell begins what actually turns out to be four long walks through the city by making the tired observation that its underclass "lives in a parallel universe." It is this, the idea of "two Baltimores," that ultimately keeps him from presenting anything like a complete picture of the city or its character.
The other annoying thing is that Bell himself has precious few things to say about Baltimore, so he relies on others, all native Baltimoreans, to say them for him. In a walk through the oft-ignored West Baltimore area known as Dickeyville--the selection of which is, incidentally, one of the book's most redeeming decisions--he has the novelist Laura Lippman by his side to give it color; she tells childhood stories of playing in the dirty creek. Slumming it alongside the arabbers at a few shot-and-beer and lake trout joints in Barclay, he has Eric Singer, a political scientist and colleague at Goucher College (where Bell teaches creative writing), to explain that the areas surrounding the York Road/Greenmount Avenue corridor "were mostly white working-class neighborhoods . . . before the big waves of black migration from the South," and that Waverly reminds him of a South African township. He knocks back beers and gripes about the "new Fells Point breed--rich enough to buy in at the astronomical new prices, hip enough to want to be near the music and the clubs, but also wanting it quiet by ten, so he can get some sleep," while watching another friend play blues harmonica at the Cat's Eye Pub.
In the fourth walking journey--from the Inner Harbor up Charles Street into Roland Park--Bell's companion, a scion of the famous Latrobe family, isn't a good conversationalist, and things get just plain boring and inaccurate. Bell's descriptions lapse into a long list of building addresses, dates of construction, names of architects. He mistakenly describes the headquarters of the Abell Foundation as "a couple of blocks east on Howard Street" of the Fidelity Building at the corner of Charles and Lexington (Howard is a few blocks west, not east). Again mixed up with his directions, Bell writes that H.L. Mencken's house near Hollins Market is "well to the east" of the apartment he occupied on Cathedral Street, now part of the Baltimore School for the Arts.
When he passes Sofi's Crepes in Station North, instead of writing about it, Bell spends two pages describing a long-gone art space run by "anarchist and iconoclast" Mok Hossfeld, who left Baltimore in 1995, then turns up his nose at the "derelict feel" of the section of Charles Street around Club Choices and Caribbean Paradise Restaurant and the "people who are running around yelling, `Yo! Yo!' to get each other's attention." No mention is made of Red Emma's, the current anarchist hangout, which isn't that far away, nor of the fact that Club Choices is a major hot spot for black nightlife, particularly the distinctive, homegrown music known as club.
The gripes accumulate in this last walk, as Bell and friend bemoan the loss of spots that haven't been around for years, like the Homewood Deli and the Buttery restaurant, at the expense of all the actual, extant, beautiful things they are walking by. In this sense, Charm City is not so much a piece of prolonged tourist literature--it's the cobbled-together historical blurbs about each building they pass that give it that feel, at times--as it is a walk through the Baltimore that Madison Smartt Bell remembers. And aside for curmudgeonly old folks who feel the same, the book isn't of much use to anyone, tourist or otherwise.