Finding the “real” Baltimore

Posted Sunday, Jul. 13, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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It’s not the TV shows Homicide and The Wire that come to mind when I think of Baltimore, though both offered an intense look at an American city’s poverty, drugs and gangs.

Baltimore’s glitzy Inner Harbor didn’t draw me there either.

Instead, I went looking for old things connected to the city’s history and quirky local culture — everything from Edgar Allan Poe to row houses and painted window screens, a utilitarian folk art that’s being revived. Here’s what I found.

Hampden

This is where kitsch and hipsters converge — amid the boutiques, eateries and antique shops of West 36th Street in Hampden.

The neighborhood’s epicenter might well be the giant pink flamingo at 1002 W. 36th St. outside Cafe Hon — short for honey, but not the edible kind. Elsewhere, you’d be called sir or ma’am, but here you’re “hon.”

For more details — including the local penchant for beehive hairdos — watch movies by Baltimore native John Waters.

On West 36th Street, artful displays at Trohv Baltimore highlight the beauty of everyday objects like old jars or wooden spools of thread; Bryan’s Finds & Designs is a fabulous jumble of jewelry, hats, lamps and other vintage accessories; and Razzo sells crab shells painted with beehive hairdos.

Farther down the road, Golden West Cafe offers funky but scrumptious goodies like house-made doughnuts and a bloody mary garnished with delectable pickled green beans from Tanner’s Pickles of Remington Avenue.

Fells Point

Fells Point is on one side of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where pubs, souvenir shops and water taxis attract hordes of tourists. But a block from the water, Fells Point’s historic district — bounded by Aliceanna, Dallas and Wolfe streets — offers quiet, narrow streetscapes dating to the 18th century.

Many of the tiny brick and wood-framed homes, some with gabled roofs and dormer windows, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Of note: Robert Long House, Baltimore’s oldest home, was built in 1765 at 812 S. Ann St. and is worth a visit; and The Admiral Fell Inn at 888 S. Broadway is a boutique hotel and former seamen’s boardinghouse that offers bird’s-eye views from its balconies of the area’s tidy old buildings and rooftops.

Edgar Allan Poe

Many cities claim Poe: He was born in Boston and lived in Virginia, New York and Philadelphia. “But this is the place he really considered home,” says Lisa Lewenz, administrator of the Poe House and Museum, a national landmark at 203 N. Amity St.

Poe lived in the tiny brick house, just 13 feet wide, in the 1830s with his grandmother, aunt and two cousins. (Poe married his cousin Virginia when she was 13.)

Exhibits tell the story of Poe’s life and death; artifacts include his portable writing desk — the laptop of its day — and his telescope. It’s open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, $5; www.poeinbaltimore.org.

Poe died in Baltimore in 1849 after being found delirious on the street in circumstances as mysterious as his haunting tales and poems. His death has been attributed to everything from alcohol to rabies.

His birthday was marked for decades by a visitor who left roses and cognac at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground at 519 W. Fayette St., where he’s buried. A monument there bears Poe’s likeness, while another marker bears a raven.

Painted screens

Baltimore is famous for row houses — adjacent brick homes, two to three stories tall. Folks walking by on narrow sidewalks could see right inside, so beginning in the early 20th century, window screens were sometimes painted with designs to increase privacy.

Air conditioners helped kill the tradition, but you can still find a few painted screens — both vintage and newly painted by artists trying to revive them — along Elliot Street in Canton between Conkling and Linwood, or Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.

The American Visionary Art Museum has a permanent exhibit on painted screens that includes a documentary and recreation of a row house. The gift shop sells a map of painted screen locations, or order maps for $5 from the Painted Screen Society ( paintedscreens.org), which can also arrange customized tours. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 800 Key Highway, $16; www.avam.org.

Et cetera

History buffs may also want to see the Babe Ruth Birthplace, honoring the baseball legend; Fort McHenry, where a flag raised during the War of 1812 inspired the writing of The Star-Spangled Banner; and the Bromo Seltzer Tower, a 1911 structure at 21 S. Eutaw St. that features a castlelike turret and a clock face bearing the letters B-R-O-M-O S-E-L-T-Z-E-R instead of numbers.

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