This past weekend, I had occasion to go to Baltimore with Megan, to help out with our homegrown company, Metropolis Soap. For those of you who aren’t regular readers of the blog, Megan has been pursuing Metropolis as a sole means of income for the past few weeks, and I’ve been doing whatever I can to assist in the promotion and distribution of her products. This time it meant taking the weekend off from work to help put up and take down the displays, help man the booth, and generally try to get the word out. It was a busy weekend, but an enjoyable one, and I think it can be counted as largely successful. I also got a good look at Artscape, which is billed as being the largest independent arts festival in the country. In addition to arts and crafts, it features food, music, performers, and an impressive collection of freaks, geeks, queers, and oddballs. Saturday was my birthday, and I got to see Gov’t Mule, the headliners of the festival; they were great, as always. Warren Haynes is a musical idol of mine. His voice is just so big; regardless of the size of the venue, whether it’s a tiny club or a sprawling mountainside, it just seems to grow and resonate and spread out and out, and the depth and soul in evidence is just an incredibly moving thing. This is a man who feels the music as he sings it, and the audience can’t help but feel it too.
Artscape also gave me an opportunity to get a good look at Baltimore, a city where I’ve had limited past experience. I remember getting lost there once with my friend Tiffany some years back, and sort of driving aimlessly around for a few hours, through neighborhoods that looked increasingly more dicey at every turn. This time we were sort of in downtown, I guess…we were right by Camden Yards, where the Orioles play, and whatever the hell the stadium is called where the Ravens have their home games. As I mentioned, the area where the event itself was taking place seemed to be bustling with life. There were several clubs and restaurants that were still in full swing when we packed up at ten o’clock, and it seemed like even if the festival was officially done for the night, things were just getting started. Of course, we were too exhausted to do much but go back to the hotel and crash. The whole place seemed to be very gay friendly, which I liked. I saw many male and female couples making the rounds with no bother, the same as in New York. But with that being said, I also saw many homeless. Stopping at red lights on the way to and from the event, panhandlers shuffled about among the parked cars, some of them very aggressive, holding their hands out right up against the windows. Though I’ll sometimes give if I’m in the right mood, rolling down a car window in traffic to try and help someone out seems like a bad idea for a variety of reasons. But what really struck me about Baltimore (it’s probably wrong to pigeonhole based on observances of just a couple of neighborhoods, but still, there it is), came as we were driving back to New York Sunday night. We’d made our last few sales, loaded up the car, and the G.P.S. was sending us back to the highway via the most direct route. The route it gave sent us cruising through a neighborhood that I remember thinking at the time looked like images of war-torn Baghdad. There were blocks after blocks after blocks of boarded up tenements, all of them looking condemned, broken glass and piles of trash in vacant lots. There were no businesses open, except, and I’m not even kidding here, a couple of liquor stores and fried chicken restaurants. But even in the buildings where most of the windows were boarded up, there were a few lights on, and there were people sitting on the steps of some of them, in some cases smoking weed right out in the open. I’ve been through some pretty rough neighborhoods in my life, but this was just another level…it was the ghetto, plain and simple, and it was incredibly saddening to me that people had to live in a place like this. What struck me the most was just the lack of commerce. Where there are no businesses neighborhoods can’t really thrive, and that seemed to be the case here. I wondered if things were like this before the economic collapse and the hard times of the past couple of years, or did the condition of this area predate that significantly?
Overall, I had a really nice time over the weekend. I enjoyed my birthday, spending time with Megan, and seeing a new city that I didn’t know a whole lot about. I’d like to go back to Artscape next year, if I get a chance, and there’s no reason to think that we wouldn’t, as it was profitable. There seems to be a lot about Baltimore to recommend it. But I also could hardly turn a blind eye to what, to me, appeared to be a city in financial trouble. I know that economics are cyclical, and what the condition is today may be different in a year, or five years. I just hope that the city can ride out the bad times, because what I saw was sobering. It was not desperation that I saw in some of the faces I passed. Rather, it seemed more like resignation, which is what comes when all hope is truly gone.