Freddie Gray’s city: is it still so charming?

Charm City, why do they call you this? And where is all the post-‘riot’ destruction? Those were the big questions I had as I made my way from where I grew up (just outside of your arch nemesis city Washington DC) to your downtown. I’m guessing charm city is an old name they used to call you; is it still true? Maybe I’m a misguided visitor, but I’m kinda looking for historical charm in a contemporary time; if it’s too strange to pit the present-day realities against selective memories of the past, then I’m confident you’ll show me the error of my ways. Like really, can a city where Freddie Gray was killed in police custody be charming? Where the palpable urban disinvestment policies of the mid 20th century still grip large swaths of the city’s Black neighborhoods, is there charm to behold there? I’ll hold my breath, but I hope your answer isn’t some fancy crazy reconstitution of the word charm.

*Signed, an incessant inquirer*


A weekend with the bae brought me here. Our stay at the Hyatt Regency afforded me a to-die-for view of the harbor that if you stare out at too long, you’ll believe all things are right in this city.

Baltimore City: Harbor window view

A view outside the window at the Baltimore Harbor Hyatt Regency Hotel

Once I broached the city limits en route to the harbor, my mind began scanning for signs of what had taken place several weeks before. What about these pedestrians, were they here? Do these panhandlers have a story to tell? I perused the sidewalks looking for a sign of the tension that had captivated national media attention in recent months. Here I was in a city that has long been deemed troubled and hopeless; thrust into the national spotlight because of protests against injustice, and I was looking for remnants of this story in the least likely of all places — a mega tourist trap.

Baltimore City: Street sign

Downtown, this way

My curious brain nagged on endlessly with questions: where are all the Black people? How can a city, only a few months after alleged mass ‘riots’ and civil unrest seem so unscathed? How can a city with such a thriving commercial district continue to see citizens living in such entrenched generational poverty and blighted neighborhoods? Looking out from my window at the Hyatt Regency I almost believed that everything I had previously known, lived, and heard of Baltimore was a farce. Notwithstanding the endless debate and scathing criticisms of sensational media coverage following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, I was still convinced there would be a tangible social residue ready to be discovered by anyone with the inclination to look for it. Perhaps I was convinced because those images of destruction had been burned into my mind.

Baltimore City: streetview

Downtown streetview

That got me thinking about a few things: the role of shiny touristic places, the memories that places have, and the relentlessness of business as usual. Touristic places are supposed to skew your perspective even if only a teeny bit. They are meant to isolate you from the reality of local life by presenting a sanitized, curated, and sometimes highly commercialized version of a place. This is one of the fundamental issues I hope to take on later in my academic life: tourism economies, the construction of memories and memorials, the design of experiences, and the commodification of authenticity to spur the local economy. Fascinating, trust me. Where is the line between commodifying a fabrication of life versus an ‘authentic’ portrayal of real life? As an avid traveler and member of many online travel communities, I witness many debates about the merits of seeing the major tourist attractions and getting off the beaten path so-to-speak. You want to see what you read about in tour guides, but you want to satisfy your inner yearning to not be a complete outsider. You want to connect with people in a language you understand, but you want ‘real’ experiences with locals.

Baltimore City: Af-Am Festival

A moment at the 2015 African-American Festival downtown.

In the case of visiting Baltimore for the weekend, I wanted a taste of both. I couldn’t shake the media loops replaying in my head. I, we, had been bombarded with a multitude of narratives about the events surrounding the murder of Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black teen at the hands of the police. I wanted to see the vestiges of the unrest without leaving the comforts of the Harbor; arguably and by necessity, the Harbor is one of the places in the city least likely to benefit from maintaining a memory of this difficult time. My fixation on this series of events completely colored everything I saw, felt, heard, and did. If you’ve ever traveled to a place that recently experienced a shock, whether natural, terroristic, or infamous by other means, you too may find yourself succumbing to this allure, juxtaposing your experience with a narrative about what happened. I imagine this is what happens when travelers visit downtown Manhattan’s 9/11 Memorial site, or tourists who were in Paris immediately following the November 2015 terrorist attacks.

Baltimore City: Penn Station

Just outside of Baltimore Penn Station

The irony of this led me to wonder about the harbor’s history. Why do they call this the ‘charm city?’ How has this area of the city continued to thrive while large swaths of the city’s West side are suffering from devastating blight and vacant property rates? Many people affectionately deem Baltimore a ‘city of neighborhoods.’ I have a hunch that it is a city of many things and like so many other cities around the country and world, a city of contradictions.

Baltimore City: young girl

Guessing those chips are the bomb.com

The most charming thing I stumbled upon was the African-American Festival, affectionately abbreviated as Af-Am Fest. It is an annual free music festival that takes place downtown adjacent to the Baltimore Orioles Baseball Stadium. The simplicity of the festival’s name made me smile. While this city has a long way to go to settle its debt to the Black community, having a festival erected in their name, underwritten by the City and countless corporate sponsors, makes it clear that the community will continue to hold those in power accountable for what they know they deserve: justice, jobs, dignity.

Baltimore City, balloon child

Child leaving the City Festival

 

[inquire] Have you ever visited a place and found yourself wondering about previous historic events? Ever feel like unsettled the by way life seemed to go on immediately following this event that played out on the news? Share your reflections in the comments or by emailing me at theroadlessinquired at gmail dot com.

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