I belong in Baltimore


I read somewhere a simple phrase that has made a world of difference in my life. I don’t know who to attribute credit to but I am grateful to whomever it was that put the phrase into print so that I could pick it up at just the right moment. The phrase is this: What you think about increases.

A worker owned and collectively managed book store just down the street from Corporate financial headquarters. (Nancy Murray)

When I was newly in love with Baltimore I saw all the charming people, the interesting architecture, the vibrant beauty and, every day, beauty showed up in buckets.  When I allowed my heart to wash over with fear I could see nothing but the trash, the violence and the sad faces I passed on the street and, because that’s what I was focused on, more and more of them seemed to be staring me down as I hurried along my way.

The choice between love and fear presents itself in every moment of every day and the way we choose determines the world we live in. That’s the reason it took me five years to watch The Wire. I didn’t want to see an up close reenactment of the underbelly of my new city. I chose, instead, to wander the narrow streets in the evening, admiring the quirky works of art, the down home charm of the locals, and the myriad ways the people of Baltimore express themselves.

It was nothing like D.C. where everything was polished and shined. Baltimore has grit. It has always been a working port with working people and that shows. Yes, there is a financial district, a shopping Mecca and a tourist section, but those were less interesting to me than individual neighborhoods like Pigtown, Hamilton,  SoWeBo, Hampden or Little Italy where communities of like-minded people came together to honor and to celebrate their heritage, their crafts, their politics, art, dietary restrictions or whatever.

So many choices of fresh food in Baltimore. Got to love that. (Larry Luxner)

There are 240 separate neighborhoods in Baltimore City and each one has its own personality, its own flavor; its own community where people can experience the safety of numbers and the sense of belonging. I came here after living for most of my life in a suburban neighborhood where anyone who didn’t look like “us” or act like “us” was eyed with suspicion.

It was awkward for me to come up this way because I never felt like I belonged to the “us” that was being referred to but if I looked in the mirror it did appear that I fit right in. That’s the beauty of sticking with your own, I guess.  There is a sense that no matter how awkward or ineffective you feel you still belong and the feeling of belonging is a powerful draw. We are all “longing to be.” The concept of “us” has a homey feeling to it. The trouble is that many people believe that in order to get the feeling of “us” there has to be a feeling of “them” and that requires focused concentration on the perceived failings or dangers in “their” way of life. When that is what you think about – that is what increases.

No matter where you come from, Baltimore celebrates you. (Nancy Murray)

I wanted to break out of that mode of thinking and so I got on my bike and began to ride. It was my intention to make friends with everyone. I rode through posh neighborhoods like Roland Park and gawked at the gorgeous mansions there and I rode through East Baltimore where I was equally stunned by the boarded up row houses and the bands of young kids with nothing to do but hang out on their stoops.

There are people living in desperate poverty less than a mile from the extremely wealthy; communist bookstores less than a block from the towering financial corporate headquarters; dilapidated high schools right next door to elite universities; Catholic churches a block from “the block.”  And environmental advocates surrounded by litter.

Baltimore is a microcosm of the entire universe all packed into 92 square miles. If I focused my attention on any one part of it I might find ways to feel out of sorts or out of place but if I chose to think about the bigger picture-the festivals that happen nearly every week to celebrate one heritage or another – the free films all over the city where people from all neighborhoods come together on a lawn to picnic or the way in which all neighborhoods in this city  practically hold hands when the Ravens play then I am warmed because I know that, despite our differences, we all have one common denominator.

We all belong here.

That’s what I choose to think about.