Sunday, February 20, 2011

Charm City

I just got back from attending a conference in Baltimore, Maryland. I was there for work, so most of my time was spent in the hotel. However, some colleagues and I did walk down to the inner harbor each evening for dinner. Two nights in a row we ate at Phillips which had some absolutely amazing sea food. The first night I had crab stuffed shrimp that was served on a bed of rice and vegetables. The second night I had a broiled seafood platter that included their award winning crab cake (much more crab than cake), garlic shrimp and broiled mahi mahi with a green Thai curry sauce that was to die for. DOUBLE YUM~!!

On the last day of the conference one of the other members of my team and I took some time to explore a bit by riding the "Circle Lady", the free city bus that took us into the Mt. Vernon district (on the Purple Route). We met some interesting people on the bus. I struck up a conversation with a few different folks, asking them what they liked best or least about living in Baltimore. It was intriguing the range of answers I got.

Baltimore, MD is known as "Charm City". Some say that is because in the 1970's the city developer came up with a promotional campaign (similar to something done in Pendleton, Oregon), having various businesses offer charms that in some way represent their establishments. People were encouraged to get the bracelets they went on and collect all the different charms, so the name stuck.

However, others say the name is more for the feeling of the place. Located on the East Coast of the United States, between New York City and Washington, D.C., Baltimore is one of America's oldest cities, known for its rich ethnic and maritime heritage, sense of history and fine food.

Whatever the reason, I found Baltimore to be a delightful city. Sure, it has its problems, as any city will. But at least the area where I went was pretty, it was surprisingly clean and I never once saw pan handlers or homeless people hanging about like I did on nearly every street corner on a recent trip to Salt Lake City.

I would like to believe that Baltimore's lack of beggars had more to do with providing appropriate resources for people down on their luck so they had more suitable avenues for getting what they need. I suspect it may have more to do with lack of tolerance for those who don't promote the "charm" image.

In speaking with some of the folks we met along our bus route the general consensus seemed to be that Baltimore is kept beautiful along the inner harbor and main business district - where I was for my conference; From what I was told once you get outside of that carefully guarded corridor there is a general decay.

The January 2009 Point-in-Time Homeless count for Baltimore was 3,419. That is out of a city with an estimated population of 636,919. (steadily decreasing since 1980.)

An interesting point a gentleman made to me on our bus ride was that there are enough vacant houses and apartments throughout the city to accommodate every one of those homeless individuals. However, those houses and apartments belong to someone who has no obligation to have them used by strangers in need. So what is the greater problem - poverty and homelessness or lack of willingness to be our brother's keeper?

That opens up a whole kettle of fish about whether or not giving someone free housing is in the best interest of the individual or the community. I worked in providing services to homeless long enough to know that many people fear if we do a really good job of providing for our poor the consequence will be having your community become a magnet attracting down and out folks from areas with fewer services. There are no simple answers.

Still, for me, my stay in "Charm City" was a pleasant one, even if I only saw the shiny face put on for visitors. I acknowledge that there are indeed significant problems behind that facade. Nevertheless, of the various people I talked to I felt a real authenticity behind the "charm", and I very much appreciated the graciousness and open friendly attitudes I encountered.

I will long remember the homeless vet who was carrying a big bag of food bank bread to go feed the ducks in the park. He didn't have much, but as he went he offered bread to the bus driver and other passengers, entreating them each to have a great day. I will remember the bouncer who had a pretty jaded view of life, who spent his days "beating people up and throwing them out of the bar when they get out of hand" and compare that to the conversation I had with the bus driver, an attractive young woman who had moved to Baltimore the year before, praising the city she viewed as "quiet, a good place to raise my son." (She had come from New York City.)

No matter where I go there will be both good and bad. I can be like the bouncer or the bus driver. I choose which part I will focus on.

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