Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Laura Lippman's Baltimore

Laura Lippman gives readers a glimpse of good Baltimore and the seedier neighborhoods of Baltimore. She describes Fells Point and the gritty row houses on Washington Street and she describes her neighborhood, Butchers Hill, as “an uneasy mix of old-timers, poor folks, and gentrifiers” (21). I think that Butchers Hill is more up-and-coming than it was when Lippman wrote the book (the neighborhood’s website describes it as artsy and a great place for young, single people to live), but her identification of the hierarchy of Baltimore, how the different communities look down upon one another, is very perceptive. Lippman also says that although she could never “accustom herself to [the District of Columbia’s] checkerboard quality, where a block of restored townhouses suddenly gave way to rowhouse slums,” the “neighborhoods [in Baltimore]were good or bad, and it was easy to avoid the trouble spots.” (64).

I always viewed Baltimore as a checkerboard, especially with its grid-patterned streets. I disagree with Lippman that Baltimore neighborhoods are either good or bad. One photograph taken by Baltimoreans for a local art group called Art on Purpose shows two sets of row houses facing each other. A telephone pole divides the photograph neatly down the middle. The row houses on the left side of the street and telephone pole are dark and old and a group of African-American children sit on a stoop. The houses on the right are three stories high and are bright, but austere. (The photograph may be viewed at this link: http://www.urbanitebaltimore.com/sub.cfm?sectionID=4&articleID=523&IssueID=40) The community around Loyola is also an example of the lack of distinctions between “bad” and “good” communities in Baltimore. The houses on Charles Street are beautifully maintained and some are enormous. However, there is a police camera box on Cold Spring Lane (on the other side of York Road) and York Road is less than savory—particularly at nighttime. Despite her claim that Baltimore communities are good or bad, Lippman later says that she felt “like I was in a foreign land less than a mile from my own apartment” (110). She also describes her office’s location as “one of the iffier blocks on Butchers Hill” (8), implying that some blocks of the same community are less safe than others.

It is important that Baltimore institutions and people work together to create consistency in the neighborhoods of Baltimore. It is admirable that neighborhoods such as Butchers Hill and Mount Vernon are distinct by their architecture, but neighborhoods should not be distinguishable by the number of police camera boxes per block or the number of violent crimes that occur. Wealth in Baltimore needs to be more evenly distributed and businesses need to open in the less trafficked neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs suggests in The Death and Life of Great American Cities that crime can be prevented when eyes are on the streets. She further asserts that businesses bring more eyes to the streets in the form of shoppers and shopkeepers watching from windows. In order to revitalize the poorer communities in Baltimore, neighborhood shops need to be opened.