Enoch Pratt’s money has been well spent, particularly at the central location. Its huge display windows outside are decorated as imaginatively as old department stores, particularly the annual Lego® Christmas constructions. Inside, the H. L. Mencken room boasts an archive of books, letters, and other ephemera from our “Sage of Baltimore.” The library’s special collections include thousands of historically significant documents, rare books, and other unusual items of interest, including my favorites, the postcard and greeting card collections. The downtown branch also hosts the wonderful Writers LIVE! series, which this year hosted Madeleine Albright, Jim Lehrer, and Chris Matthews. If you head a few blocks north on Cathedral, you may want to stop to do some writing at City Café, then swing by the Baltimore School for the Arts. H. L. Mencken lived in an apartment on the location that now houses the school, and the late Tupac Shakur was once a student here. Also on Cathedral is the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, where Edna St. Vincent Millay was known to read her work.
If north Baltimore is the mind of our fine city, then south Baltimore is its gritty soul. From the sweet, pungent waterfront to the neighborhoods carved out by ethnicity (Little Italy, Greektown), vocation (Butcher’s Hill, Brewer’s Hill), and geographical advantage (Highlandtown), south Baltimore has found life on film in Barry Levinson’s Diner and the gravely underrated television series, Homicide: Life on the Street. Past the tourist-friendly Inner Harbor and Fells Point, the Creative Alliance, housed in the old Patterson Movie Theater on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, is the southern beacon of the city to Hampden’s northern lights. In addition to offering artist residencies in its second-floor studios, the Creative Alliance houses a functioning theater, gallery, classrooms, administrative space, and a restaurant and bar, and offers writing classes and workshops in fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and poetry, as well as various readings and performances. The Creative Alliance was also the birthplace of the “Stoop Storytelling Series,” a wildly popular monthly theater performance featuring Baltimoreans from all walks of life detailing their funniest and most painful, embarrassing, and triumphant moments. Earlier this year, the Creative Alliance also welcomed The Lit Show, a biannual live-action talk show and variety program that I co-host with writer and UB lecturer Betsy Boyd to get the “story behind the story” from local and national writers.
Not only does Baltimore have a variety of reading venues, it also has many great places to write. If you’re the traditional coffeehouse author, try the bustling Evergeen Cafe, located in the upscale Roland Park neighborhood (home to novelist Anne Tyler, who has been spied shopping at the neighborhood grocery store Eddie’s), or Alonso’s Loco Hombre, the unique burger-cum-Mexican double restaurant up the street.
Likewise, Firehouse Coffee in Canton Square is a destination of writers in South Baltimore. Although located in Canton—more popular for its jock than arts culture—the Firehouse is minutes away from the waterfront, where a pedestrian path that begins in Canton snakes for miles westward beside the water over to the Inner Harbor. Not only are there great views of the harbor, tugboats and other working ships, sailboats, and the iconic Domino Sugar sign, the path also crosses in front of the City Pier—otherwise known as the Homicide police headquarters.
One can get a great feel for Baltimore’s blue-collar history along this Canton-Fells Point-Inner Harbor East promenade. At the turn of the century my family grew up in its cramped, now renovated rowhouses with the marble steps, hard-working Polish immigrants living seven or eight to a two-bedroom house, toiling as stevedores on the waterfront and canners at the American Can Co. on Boston Street (now a mixed-use building of restaurants and office space). They lost fingers and broke backs and put their kids through Catholic schools throughout the southeastern district, and they gave me many stories to write about. Just as Anne Tyler has immortalized Roland Park in her novels, ours is a neighborhood that Rafael Alvarez made famous as a city desk reporter for the Baltimore Sun and later in his fiction. If you haven’t already, be sure to read my favorite of his stories, “Johnny Wichodek’s Thanksgiving Duck,” in the collection The Fountain of Highlandtown (Woodholm House, 1997). Portions of my own forthcoming novel, The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), are set along these dirty cobblestone streets made most famous by Hitchcock’s Marnie, where musky bars abut residential blocks like bookends, and Edgar Allen Poe is rumored to have died (at the Fells Point bar The Horse You Came in On, although others say he actually died blocks north at the old Church Home and Hospital, now part of Johns Hopkins).
Another former Baltimore Sun reporter, mystery queen Laura Lippman (whose husband, David Simon, produced The Wire), made another south Baltimore location famous—Federal Hill, a once blue-collar, now gentrified neighborhood across the Inner Harbor. In addition to serving as a backdrop for some of her mysteries, the neighborhood also houses the coffee shop Spoons, where Lippman has penned a work or two.
I have avoided mentioning much about famous filmmaker John Waters up to now—not because I don’t like him (I, in fact, love him), but because Baltimore too often gets paired singularly with his vision. In a sentence: rent Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, and Cecil B. Demented to get the scope of his movies and read his book Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) to learn about how Baltimore shaped the man who introduced the world to Divine.
I’d rather pay tribute to a writer who was not born in Baltimore, did not live or write in Baltimore, and did not die in Baltimore. However, she is buried here, at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, under a plaque that reads “Excuse My Dust.” After being rescued from a lawyer’s file cabinet in New York, the ashes of Dorothy Parker, whose name is nearly synonymous with New York City and the Algonquin Hotel, forever resides in Baltimore because she willed her estate to civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. In the event of King’s death, she further stipulated that her estate should go to the NAACP (who also hold the literary rights to her work). Although the circumstances are a bit unusual, it seems a fitting end for her, sharing the soil with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe (who, though forever claimed by Philadelphians, lies for eternity at Westminster Church and Burial Ground in downtown Baltimore). A fair bit of warning, then: Even if you leave our fair city, we might just claim you anyway.