Putting Baltimore Guidebooks to the Test
Of course, before being misled you have to find a Baltimore guidebook, a surprisingly difficult task. If you're headed to Chicago or New York, there are literally dozens of books to choose from, but the Inner Harbor Barnes and Noble carried only two books dedicated solely to Baltimore when last checked: The Insiders' Guide to Baltimore and City Smart Baltimore. For all city leaders' talk about our booming tourism market, we're not exactly drowning visitors in information.
To be fair, there are a few guidebooks that focus on Maryland, and even more that lump Maryland and Delaware together. These books tend to have a small chapter on Baltimore that lists only the most well-known attractions. Even Maryland and Delaware Off the Beaten Path focuses on places like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Camden Yards, begging the question: What exactly is on the beaten path?
And then there are guidebooks to Charm City's neighbor to the south. More than 45 Washington guidebooks cluttered Barnes and Noble's travel-section shelves on a recent visit, less than half of which mentioned Baltimore. Both of the Baltimore books listed Washington as a day trip, but The Everything Guide to Washington D.C. would rather send people 75 miles south to Kings Dominion than 35 miles north to Baltimore. Granted Baltimore doesn't have any roller coasters--unless you count taking the light rail south toward BWI--but that doesn't mean it isn't day trip-worthy.
The books that do deign to focus on Charm City, City Smart Baltimore and The Insiders' Guide to Baltimore, have a lot in common. Both are fairly out of date, both ignore two thirds of the city, and neither fesses up to how incredibly un-user-friendly our public transportation is. The biggest difference between the two is tone. City Smart feels like it was written by your unhip but well-meaning uncle. And seeing as its author is local writer Joe Sugarman, who admits in the book-jacket copy to occasionally playing Maryland Science Center mascot T. Rex in parades, that might not be too far from the truth.
The text is peppered with quirky stories, like how Maryland got its Free State moniker--a Sun editorial during Prohibition suggesting that Maryland secede over the 18th Amendment--and that the site of Port Discovery was almost turned into a women's prison in the 1960s. There are also some great historical quotes, like H.L. Mencken's assertion, "[I]f the true purpose of living is to be born in comfort, to live happily and to die at peace, the average Baltimorean is infinitely better off than the average New Yorker."
City Smart also features a wonderfully Baltimore combination of hometown pride and self-deprecation. The weather section is gratifyingly frank: "Winters are relatively mild in Baltimore, despite the panic that accompanies even the thinnest possibility of snowfall." And the parks section begins, "Let's be honest: You probably didn't come to Baltimore to visit its parks."
The Insiders' Guide, on the other hand, is a peppy marketing cheerleader for Baltimore, filled with the kind of upbeat nonsense that people stitch on pillows: "One truth, then, about Baltimore is woven throughout the city and its neighborhoods: It is an area of history, and it is because of that history that much of Baltimore was built in the first place." Um, what? It's also full of questionable claims like, "compared to other major East Coast cities, Baltimore's road system is in pretty good shape," and totally spurious ones like, "many residents of the Washington area come here regularly to shop at the Inner Harbor." What, doesn't Washington have a Hats in the Belfry of its very own?
The two books' descriptions of Penn Station beautifully illustrate their differing viewpoints. While City Smart says that "Baltimore's Penn Station has nothing more than a poorly stocked newsstand and a coffee shop to wile away the time waiting for your train," the Insiders' Guide refers to the station as "a marvel . . . you can find everything from a store selling juices, candy and magazines, to a small sandwich counter." Add a shoe-shine stand, and that is quite literally everything you'll find there.
The Insiders' Guide fares better when describing how things were then rather than how they are now. Its history section is 16 pages long; City Smart's is only five. And the former gives the history of almost every place it mentions. But both books contain sections on that most cringe-worthy Baltimore obsession: Bawlmerese and common local phrases. Sure, it's true that we live in rowhouses not townhouses, and that kids here call adults by Miss or Mr. followed by their first name, but you're probably not going to hear anyone refer to a sink as a "zinc," as The Insiders' Guide suggests, unless you're at some sort of grandpa party in Highlandtown.
Both books' biggest gaffes are in the information they leave out. As far as they're concerned, the city is a straight thin strip up Charles Street, with offshoots going into Fells Point and Little Italy. Other neighborhoods are mentioned briefly. The Insiders' Guide describes Oliver, the neighborhood in which the Dawson family lived and died, as an up-and-comer, which could be true if your yardstick is, say, Beirut.
The guides also paint an unrealistic picture of getting around. Most chapters are divided into sections of the city that are far broader than they sound. In The Insiders' Guide, "Downtown" encompasses everything from North Avenue to Cross Street, and the Northeast section of the restaurant chapter takes you from Joung Kak on 20th Street to Nichi Bei Kai in Lutherville. Both books contend that buses offer an easy way for out-of-towners to get around, despite the fact that schedules and routes are not marked at bus stops.
And don't even think of using either of these books to plan a night on the town. The Insiders' Guide misdirects visitors to Federal Hill's shuttered 8x10 Club. It also misses the boat in calling Bohager's "one of the only venues for seeing big acts in the Baltimore area," and describing the Hippo as merely "gay-friendly." City Smart, on the other hand, wins points for listing the Hippo in its gay-bar section and describing the netting over Bohager's in the winter as looking "as ridiculous as it sounds."
So if you are the fabled summer visitor trying to figure out the ins and outs of Baltimore (or if you know one), here's one tip from City Smart worth taking: "Want to know who's playing where? Check out Baltimore's free alternative weekly, City Paper. Every Wednesday it gives a comprehensive listing of nightlife in Charm City." And you won't even look like a tourist carrying it around.
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