Baltimores Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, once the citys supreme skyscraper, always delivers a smile ( www.bromoseltzertower.com). Its a symbol of kitsch and nostalgia, like the city itself. Its a reminder of a gritty past and an uncertain present.
And right now, its making me feel like Ive stumbled into the fantastic world of the movie Hugo, because Im inside the clock at the top of the tower, inside the glorious Seth Thomas timepiece that still serves the city 102 years after it was installed.
Joe Wall, the towers facility manager hes the guy who puts colored gels on the clocks lights to celebrate important occasions is leading a free tour of the Clock Room, complete with the story of the towers heyday (a 20-ton blue bottle of the headache remedy sat atop the building), its decline (a tale of neglect and despair) and its renaissance (reborn as artists studios).
Baltimore has a splendid array of attractions: the Inner Harbor, National Aquarium, Walters Art Museum, Fort McHenry and Fells Point. But I wanted to measure the march of gentrification against the preservation of the citys much-ballyhooed old neighborhoods, explore, eat well and maybe even figure out what I really think of the place.
Intersection of grit and hip
My wife, Jody, and I start off with a test that any decent city should pass in a flash: A sandwich you cant find anywhere else. Score one for Baltimore. On the day before the Super Bowl, we wait with a crowd of purple-clad locals in the queue at Trinacria ( www.trinacriabaltimore.com), behind metal grating just north of downtown on Paca Street, and in the time it takes to order our porchetta, provolone and grilled onions panini, were lured over to a fine selection of Italian bakery cookies, a smorgasbord of spicy olives, fresh pasta and a startling selection of $4 wines. Yes, $4. (Parking outside is plentiful and stunningly cheap. This will become a theme.)
Trinacria is an old-school sandwich shop with counter staff who love to yak it up with the customers, nearly all of whom are regulars. Any time you can get a taste of neighborhood relationships with your juicy hot sandwich, your day is starting strong.
Properly fortified, we decide to check out what street signs tout as the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, a strip of North Charles Street near the Amtrak station that is in early-stage gentrification.
On a cold morning on the cusp of snow, we duck into the Bohemian Coffee House, which bills itself on a sign inside as Baltimores best place to take awkward dates. Sure enough, the room is buzzing literally with the jews-harp stylings of Ian Hesford from the Baltimore tribal jam band Telesma, which specializes in mesmerizing trance and electronic music with a Middle Eastern and Central Asian flavor.
Hesford, accompanied by a jovial drummer who chats mid-session with customers a few tables away, switches from the mouth harp to the didgeridoo, the Australian wind instrument made from hollowed-out eucalyptus trees. And between the music, the hipster vibe, the impressive selection of loose teas and the Sexy in Soot wall calendar featuring working guys in hard hats, we feel as if weve walked onto an indie film set.
The artsy, the fun
But the artsy crowd in Station North gets us in the mood for the twice-monthly open house at the Bromo Tower, that delightful bit of early 20th-century corporate fantasy architecture on South Eutaw Street near the ballpark. Modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, the ornate 15-story tower is best known for that iconic clock, which spells out the name of the patent medicine once produced in a factory attached to the office building.
The building which turns out to be startlingly small on the inside has been converted into studios for painters, photographers and even a playwright. For as little as $320 a month, artists have themselves a place to work, a community, spectacular views of downtown and a ready-made indoor art fair on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Making our way from floor to floor, we discover Janet Little Jeffers lush and revealing photos taken on a slow drive from Annapolis, Md., to San Diego, and Martha Doughertys elegant watercolors of Baltimore scenes presented with affection but never affectation. On the top floor, confident and eager high-school students show their art and perform their poetry, which is about those same contrasts we saw in Station North, but viewed through a more rigorous lens from the city bus and school hallways where bullying and violence shape a young persons life far more than any new combo gallery and coffee spot.
Of course, Baltimore isnt all art studios and hipster shops. We zip over to the National Pinball Museum ( www.nationalpinballmuseum.org) which moved last year from Washington to Baltimores Water Street, near Port Discovery and the Power Plant (and, alas, is closed its doors March 3 as it looks for yet another home). Fifteen dollars bought us two hours of unlimited play, a whirl of pinball madness including games based on Jurassic Park, The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family and even baseballs Frank Thomas and rocks Ted Nugent.
Even here, in tourist central, street parking is plentiful and, yep, free on weekend evenings.
Also free? The Baltimore Museum of Art and its spectacular newish wing of contemporary art ( www.artbma.org), the seven-mile-long waterfront promenade, the people-watching at Lexington Market ( www.lexingtonmarket.com) and the parking.
Oh man, Baltimore parking. We park five times in 14 hours on Saturday, for a total cost of $1.70.
Food and jazz
Harbor East, just east of the Inner Harbor, is the kind of high-end real estate development city governments love. It features generic upscale architecture, swanky shops (something Baltimore hasnt been associated with in, oh, half a century or so), a Four Seasons hotel, apartments designed to attract a Georgetown demographic, and destination restaurants some chain outlets, but more interestingly, some of the citys best-reviewed local offerings (Cinghiale, Charleston, Pabu).
We eat at Ouzo Bay, a Greek seafood spot with a seafood program, not a dog-eared menu ( www.ouzobay.com). The crowd is noticeably local. The octopus is soft and flavorful, and the waiters know their fish. And we park, for free, right across the street.
Same thing later that night, as we drop by An die Musik, which routinely offers jazz, classical and new music artists ( www.andiemusiklive.com). The room looks and feels like a Viennese salon, with big easy chairs and gorgeous acoustics. The crowd is knowledgeable, if small. We hear Emy Tseng, a singer of Brazilian jazz, with a stellar combo of Brazilian players.
The next morning were at Woodberry Kitchen ( www.woodberrykitchen.com). Tucked away in a converted millhouse near the Hampden neighborhood, the restaurant offers locally sourced fare with a down-home aesthetic, the intoxicating smell of a wood-burning oven and solid, no-gimmicks food.
The Clipper Mill redevelopment that houses the restaurant feels nothing like Hampdens main drag, 36th Street, a collection of antiques, vintage clothing and furnishings shops that is very serious about not taking itself seriously. Hampden which Forbes recently declared Americas 15th hippest hipster neighborhood is famously home to Cafe Hon and Hon Town, kitschy showcases of Baltimores image as a place where the values, fashions and pop sensibilities of the 1950s and 60s still reign. (Hon Town, a themed souvenir shop, styles its home town as Bawlmer, Murlin.)
Luckily, that beehive of kitsch doesnt infect the entire neighborhood, which is dotted with places like Minas, where painter Minas Konsolas displays his art in a gallery above his enticing collection of vintage clothes (selling at about half the price theyd go for in Washington thrifts). Here, or at spots such as the Parisian Flea, a calming collection of jewelry and tchotchkes that will carry you back to almost any decade of the last century, the struggle between authenticity and self-consciousness fades away.