Joe Wall, the tower’s facility manager — he’s the guy who puts colored gels on the clock’s lights to celebrate important occasions — is leading a free tour of the Clock Room, complete with the story of the tower’s heyday (a 20-ton blue bottle of the headache remedy sat atop the building), its decline (a stereotypical Baltimore tale of neglect and despair) and its renaissance (reborn as artists’ studios).
And my usual reaction to Baltimore — Get me a Bromo — fades away, at least for the moment.
I’ve always been torn about Baltimore. I’m mystified by Washington fans who lustily add an Orioles “O” to the singing of the national anthem at Nationals Park. I have about as much interest in news from the next big city up the Northeast Corridor as I do in, say, Pittsburgh.
On the other hand, I’ll happily stop off in Baltimore’s Little Italy on my way down Interstate 95 heading home from a New York jaunt, and it’s a cheap pleasure to join other Yankees fans in taking over Camden Yards whenever the Bronx Bombers are in town. As long as Baltimore fans aren’t using their lovely ballpark, it’s nice of them to lend it to us.
But I never got into the true-grit romance of Baltimore. Those black billboards that Martin O’Malley put up around town when he was mayor, urging his dispirited constituents simply to “BELIEVE,” struck me as more pathetic than stirring. I loved HBO’s “The Wire,” especially the episodes written by Washington novelist George Pelecanos, but its depiction of Baltimore didn’t exactly make me pine for the place, let alone want to pop up for a weekend getaway.
So when the Travel editors suggested that I check in on our neighbor to the northeast, I admit to a certain grumpiness, informed by decades of hearing Randy Newman’s pained wail (“Oh, Baltimore, man, it’s hard just to live”) in the back of my mind and by a pesky allergy to all things John Waters. (I enjoy a great beehive hairdo as much as the next guy, but camp, ultimately, is as empty as Baltimore’s rubble-strewn vacant lots.)
For a city of its size, and especially one with its reputation — the day after the Super Bowl, the Onion produced one of its instant gem headlines: “Baltimore Looking for Safer City to Host Super Bowl Parade” — Charm City has a splendid array of attractions. But when it comes to basics such as the Inner Harbor, National Aquarium, Walters Art Museum, Fort McHenry and Fells Point, most Washingtonians have probably already been there.
Instead of revisiting old favorites such as the American Visionary Art Museum, I wanted to push back against my bias, measure the march of gentrification against the preservation of the city’s much-ballyhooed old neighborhoods, explore, eat well — and maybe even figure out what I really think of the place.