City as Text: Baltimore

The National Collegiate Honors Council has designed and utilized an extraordinary experience called “City as Text.” City as Text basically allows students and professors to wander through a city looking for and at specific things that the city is known for. For example, a recent City as Text tour of Portland, Maine had a group explore several lighthouses along the coast. The tour usually runs several hours in the morning and includes a great deal of walking. Once the tour is “completed” the groups gather together to discuss the experience. It’s one of the most rewarding and interesting aspects of being involved in Honors.

Each year the National Collegiate Honors Council holds two conferences: one at the national level, and one at the regional level. Both conferences include a City as Text component that usually takes place on the first full day of the conference. This year I took three of SNHU’s University Honors students to Baltimore, Maryland to take part in the Northeast Regional Honors Conference.

Like dozens of other American cities, Baltimore is a city divided. On one hand the city is growing and showing signs of prosperous renewal. On the other hand, places like west Baltimore and some of the outlining areas are examples of some of the worst inner city decay. This does not mean that Baltimore is not worth visiting, it’s just that the casual tourist may miss some of the grittier sections of town and come away with a false sense of having “seen” the city. I suspect that many of us who travel to these American cities also miss much of the city by deliberately skipping the undesirable parts of town. Yet, some of those areas are also some of the most historic and the areas with the most culture.

The Inner Harbor of Baltimore is its showcase. Loaded with hotels and shops, the Inner Harbor presents the best face Baltimore has to offer. That is, if one like the touristy sort of façade. This is not to say that the Inner Harbor is not a representation of Baltimore, it is. But it is only a partial representation of the city. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Baltimore’s National Aquarium. The National Aquarium opened in 1981 and boasts of over 1.6 million visitors a year. Although I did not visit the aquarium, one of my students did, and she said it was one of, if not the best aquariums she has visited. “Much better than the one in Boston,” she declared.

We spent a lot of time on our first day walking around the Inner Harbor visiting the local Barnes & Noble, located in the Power Plant building, alongside the Hard Rock Café and various other restaurants. This part of Baltimore is impressive and crowded. But we wanted to venture out a bit, so we walked to Little Italy. Baltimore’s Little Italy is much, much smaller and a lot less busy than the ones found in New York and Boston. Although we had a terrific meal at one of the restaurants, I came away disappointed with that section.

The second day of the conference was the actual City as Text excursion. Since all three of us wanted to visit the home of Edgar Allan Poe, we decided to do the West Baltimore excursion. West Baltimore is not the safest part of town, nor is it the prettiest. Yet, despite its obvious state of decay, the neighborhood still retains a lot of character. Where else can one visit the birthplace of Babe Ruth and the last home Poe lived in all in the space of an hour?

It’s easy to walk by Poe’s house without noticing it. The house stands on the corner of an apartment complex and directly in front of it is a grown over field filled with litter. It’s hard to imagine what the neighborhood might have felt like in Poe’s day, but today the neighborhood assumes a third world persona. Compared to his gravesite, which is in a peaceful and well-kept cemetery, the Poe House is clearly the neglected site. In fact, on the day that we were there, the house, which is also a museum, was closed. I’m told that it’s often closed.

The regiments of row houses in Baltimore can be discouraging. Most of the ones we saw were in various states of decay. On our way to the airport we passed block after block of abandoned and bordered up row houses. The sight was beyond depressing. Particularly around the neighborhood where Johns Hopkins is located the reality of poverty hits you. On one side of the street you see one of the wealthiest and well-known institutions in the world, and directly across the street you see the homeless, the destitute, the forgotten.

On my last full day in Baltimore I left my students at the conference and walked up to the section of town called Fells Point. Taking Aliceanna Street almost the entire way, I stumbled into my what became my favorite section of the city. Fells Point is built on a series of cobblestone streets and contains myriad odd shops and bars. My intention was to get a drink at The Horse You Came In On Saloon. Although the name is dreadful, it’s one of the oldest saloons in the United States and I wanted to visit because it is rumored to be the last place Poe was drinking in before he collapsed in the street and died a day later. Like most of the sites associated with Poe, the saloon is easy to miss. When I did spot it I walked into live music and a tremendous amount of college-age students drinking. I must be getting old, because I found the music to be too loud and the shouting too distracting. I had two beers, looked around a bit and left taking the spirit of a drunken Poe with me.

I wish more conferences utilized a City as Text project. Too often conference goers miss a great deal of the location on account of spending most of the time at the conference itself. On the other hand, many presenters actually skip sessions in favor of wandering about; I am quite guilty of this on occasion, especially if I am at an international conference. By incorporating a City as Text project, even if it’s a small one, the conference becomes that much more interesting for the participant, and that much more lucrative for the local businesses.

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