Dancing in the Ruins
Exploring the area's not-so-hidden crumbling gems
Know your city. Know it beyond maps and neighborhoods and good restaurants, your favorite bar, blue lights, your kid's school, the good and bad parts of town. Know its ghosts.
This isn't too much to ask. Not just in Baltimore, but everywhere, people stay too pocketed off, sealed in cars, afraid of neighborhoods they don't know. Just the difference in viewing a street from foot as opposed to a car, or even bicycle, is amazing. New buildings pop up, architectural quirks materialize in the streetscape, the scene changes.
Urban exploration, in its classic sense, sounds like a game of dares. Associated with sneaking/breaking into abandoned buildings, onto old hospital campuses or military bases, or descending into black slime-coated old sewers or subway passages, it comes off as more of a sport than casual touring. But at the root of even the most extreme varieties is appreciation for a city's forgotten and shuttered urban spaces--its history, in a sense. In other words, it's more than just purposeful trespassing.
Baltimore has long been a hotbed for that kind of urban exploring. An aged industrial burg, the city's full of fenced off, shuttered, and mostly forgotten old factories and mills full of rusted through old machinery and other relics, although fewer and fewer than in the past. After a leveling process that took years, the Westport power generating station, once the largest of its kind in the country and a filming location for 12 Monkeys, died with a whimper in late 2007, leaving a barren platform between the Middle Branch the Patapsco River and some light rail tracks slated for upscale condominiums. Within the city limits, the massive building--full of regal arches, massive iron doors, dated generator equipment, and graffiti--was sort of the grand high temple of local urban exploring.
Many of the other popular targets of explorers are in rubble now, too. The Seton Institute, a former mental hospital for abusive priests in the Reistertown area, is mostly gone. The "hell house," outside of Ellicott City, has been likewise razed, as is the Carr Lowery Glass Company, also in Westport. Still, these places lured the thrill-seeking kind of explorer. And you don't have to trespass to appreciate old architecture. The city is littered with buildings and sites worth your venturing, however bold.
While you pass by many of them everyday--again, whipping by distractedly in a car--some of old Baltimore's wreckage takes a bit of a trip. Fort Armistead--though better known for less savory things (such as drug deals, prostitution, needles, rats, feral cats, high school tweakers, and sex) and the annual all-night Starscape rave--represents a grittier, do-it-yourself kind of destination. It's one you can actually prowl without worrying about jail or asbestos, but you might want to travel with companions and wear thick-soled shoes.
Fort Armistead is technically a park, but discharged by the city into a sort of anarchic, sparsely maintained pocket of heavily spray-painted bunkers, gun batteries, and tunnels, offering a whole lot of concrete and a whole lot of spray can professions of satanic love. Expect the enclosed areas to smell bad, too. Built in the 1890s to protect Baltimore's harbor, the fort never saw actual battle, sitting as sort of a bummer counterpoint to the well-maintained, historic Fort McHenry. In a certain sense, that makes it all the more worth visiting: it provides a more honest sort of history, one that acknowledges decay.
Sitting across the harbor and pocketed just underneath Sparrows Point is Fort Howard. The old gun batteries, relatively graffiti- and needle-free, are likewise relics of the city's early 1900s defense network--"Endicott series" forts--and never saw battle. The fort abuts North Point State Park to the northeast and the tiny town of Fort Howard, not home to much more than a VA hospital, to the northwest. The fort itself is accessed through the town off the very end of North Point Road. It's about as isolated as it comes within a half hour drive of central Baltimore, which accounts for its relative lack of skeeze. Expect more concrete batteries, covered in more ivy than tags, no people, and a stout, candy-striped lighthouse that now guards the harbor entrance.
Also outside of the city, and within more tamed jurisdiction, Patapsco State Park is a local gold mine of exploration. The park's signature feature is the Thomas Viaduct, a 600-foot-long series of stone archways supporting still-operational railroad tracks. Built in the 1830s and serving freight trains continuously since, it's the sort of presence you imagine will be left standing for millennia after human beings have left the area. (For a comparable structure that is also off-the-beaten path, the Carrollton viaduct, a short wander up the Gwynns Falls trail from Washington Boulevard, is an impressively imposing three-story monolith built in the same time period.)
The park's true jewel, however, is its cast-aside chapel, the Chapel of St. Stanislaus Kostka--also known as the "good church"--and its small patch of graveyard. Overgrown and slowly crumbling, what's left are the structure's dilapidated walls graced by now three-sided windows, creeping undergrowth, a pair of old arched doorways, and a front yard full of rusted-out cars. It's far enough away--and requires a 30-minute or so walk in along Alberton Road--that taggers have mostly spared the ruin and, for the same reason, it's a relatively minimal safety risk as well. This is also the stop on your underground tour of Baltimore where you'd be wise to start heeding one of the cardinal rules of urban exploring, "leaving only footsteps." Think about these things getting discovered by some wayward alien sometime well into our post-apocalypse. A fort is a fort, but a chapel, well, is something for a species to boast.
Further up the Gwynns Falls trail from the Carrollton Viaduct is one of the cooler stretches of current post-apocalypse in the city: the Ellicott Driveway portion of the trail. Essentially an old highway, complete with yellow center striping, overgrown at the edges and slowly cracking apart, the ex-road now serves cyclists and pedestrians. As it winds for a short distance from Frederick Avenue to Baltimore Street along Gwynns Falls and an infrequently used stretch of rail line, the trail passes under the crumbling backsides of an old butcher, a leather and broom works, and a defunct brewery lining the ridge above and slowly succumbing to gravity. If you're on the road in the right lighting--flat twilight perhaps--it's a fabulous place to freak yourself out.
Right here in the city, there's enough awesome abandoned historical buildings to keep yourself entertained for weeks. Check them out from the outside, though, as entering will probably run you afoul of the law. Check out the building at 1450 Bayard St., original purpose unknown (utility station perhaps), with its mammoth concrete front yard forbiddingly fenced off and offering what looks like a garage sale targeted for the Maschinenmensch of Metropolis (e.g. various heavy industrial objects that could double as toys). Perched at the neck of one of the busier commuter corridors in the city, the American Ice Co. building towers over the West Baltimore MARC station like a red brick sentry. It's well worth slowing down for. And things such as the facade of the old Mayfair Theatre or the art deco remnants of the Hutzlers Complex, a cavernous department store that closed down in the late 1980s, make it worth parking.
Most of these places are pretty, no surprise there, but that's so much the point: appreciating the beauty the city has to offer. These sites are easy to get to, free, and frequently awesome, or at least very cool. The more eyes on them, the less likely they are to get razed for condos, a la the Westport station. So, pack a camera and get to really know your city.
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