Anne Tyler's Baltimore: Where Charm City meets 'The Wire'
Saturday 05 February 2011
One way of describing Baltimore among the great cities of the north-eastern US seaboard is by making clear what the place isn't. It has none of New York's size and cultural flash. It doesn't have Boston's conceits, or Philadelphia's chip on the shoulder. It is mercifully free of the self-importance of Washington DC, 40 miles and half a universe away to the southwest. On the other hand, it has everything – including its own resident muse.
In a way, Anne Tyler is an unlikely candidate for that role. Baltimore may be one of the tourist treasures of America. But although most of her 18 novels are set in the city, few of its most obvious attractions feature in their pages.
"Bawlmer", as natives call their hometown, likes to think of itself as a straight-up sort of place, where "hon" is the standard form of address. But the woman who is one of America's most praised and cherished writers – "not just good, wickedly good" in the words of John Updike – is by all accounts not like that at all.
The "by all accounts" is obligatory. Tyler doesn't do book tours and hasn't given an in-person press interview since 1977. Yet look more closely and Baltimore is perfect Tyler territory. The city, to borrow the title from one of her recent novels, is "A Patchwork Planet", a tapestry of neighbourhoods, each with its habits and idiosyncracies to be teased out, just like the deceptively ordinary individuals who people her books.
More than any American city (with the possible exception of Washington), Baltimore is a mixture of north and south – just like Tyler herself, born in Minneapolis 69 years ago, but who grew up in North Carolina before settling in Maryland's largest city in 1967.
That was just before Baltimore tried to rebrand itself as "Charm City". The promotional campaign ended in the 1970s, but the moniker stuck. But it's also known as "Mob-town", a title that derives not from Mafia connections, but from the mobs that would periodically take to its streets, above all at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Like Tyler's books, the city teems with half-hidden treasures. Among them is the Baltimore Civil War Museum, occupying part of a restored station close to the Inner Harbour, in the very heart of downtown, where in April 1861 the arrival of the first Union troops from the north on their way to Washington sparked a bloody riot.
President Lincoln responded by imposing martial law, ruthlessly enforced by General Benjamin Butler, later known as "Beast Butler". The museum recounts this often overlooked but crucial episode. Had Maryland – and the vital trade and transport hub of Baltimore – joined the Confederacy, the war's outcome might have been different.
Today, though, there is no trace of these long-ago passions. The Inner Harbour is now the first stop of every visitor to Baltimore, with its spiffed-up waterfront and the sensational National Aquarium, all just a few blocks from Campden Yards, the first (and best) of the city-centre stadiums. Incorporated into the site are a row of restored warehouses, evoking Baltimore's merchant past.
From there the visitor might stroll to the handsome Mount Vernon neighbourhood, and its streets of 18th- and 19th-century red-brick row houses, clustered around Baltimore's own Washington monument, so reminiscent of Nelson's Column in London. Or you might wander across to Fells Point, Baltimore's original port, its cobbled streets teeming with pubs and restaurants, or to Fort McHenry, whose defence during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore against the British moved the amateur poet Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner".
Then there's the literary quarter. Anne Tyler is but the latest celebrated writer forever associated with Baltimore. Walk west from the baseball stadium (passing the house where Babe Ruth was born, now a small museum) and you are in Poe and Mencken land. Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore in 1849; the house where he once lived is now a museum. A few streets away, in the Union Square neighbourhood, stands the terrace house that was home to HL Mencken, the essayist, editor and critic, a giant of American letters of the first half of the 20th century.
Further still to the west is a part of the city known the world over as the setting for the acclaimed TV crime series The Wire – Baltimore's desolate West Side, with its boarded-up houses and rampant crime. The West Side is yet another segment of Baltimore's patchwork planet. But you will read little of it in Tyler's novels.
Her world is white and affluent. It starts a couple of miles north of downtown, beyond the Beaux Arts-style Penn Station (where Barnaby Gaitlin and Sophia, the protagonists of A Patchwork Planet meet), and beyond the campus of Johns Hopkins University, jewel in Baltimore's academic crown. Whether she actually inhabits (or inhabited) Roland Park is unclear; Baltimoreans are complicit in Tyler's demands for privacy. But there and thereabouts her characters live.
Roland Park is one of America's first planned garden suburbs, dating from the 1890s. The place lives up to its name: green even in the dead of winter, with large houses and sprawling, faintly wild, gardens dotted with tall old trees. It has a vaguely English feel – not surprising given the original investors in the development were mostly British.
In an old-fashioned British way, too, the place exudes discretion, and small but uncomfortable secrets concealed behind unremarkable bourgeois exteriors. That is the hallmark of Tyler's writing. Not much happens in her books; no great events intrude. But quiet waters run deep. That goes for Anne Tyler, and for Baltimore as well.
Baltimore: film, markets & speedboats
* See a concert by Baltimore's venerable symphony orchestra. Its home, the 2,443-seat Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, has pristine acoustics and this year's programme includes such diverse offerings as Verdi's Requiem and Rogers & Hammerstein at the Movies; bsomusic.org.
* Explore the cafés, galleries and theatres of the Station North Arts District, located near the city's lovely Penn Station. There's also a monthly flea market (first Sat of each month, May-Nov); stationnorth.org.
* Supported by local 'un-dignitaries', John Walters and Henry Rollins, the Maryland Film Festival (5-8 May) is never dull. Venues across Baltimore welcome international and home-grown talent and screen over 100 full-length features, shorts and documentaries; md-filmfest.com.
* What Makes Us Smile is an exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum (until 4 Sept). This "playful celebration of human joy" is co-curated by The Simpson's Matt Groening, artist Gary Panter and museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger. Costumes, cartoons and 3-D glee from 90 artists; avam.org.
* Get a sense of the city as one of America's major seaports, with a cruise around Baltimore's harbour. Hop aboard the new Seadog, a whistle-stop speedboat tour, or take a more leisurely cruise out towards Chesapeake Bay and, if time allows, onwards to the Caribbean; baltimore.org.
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