Best of Baltimore
Best Reason to Live Here, Best Neighborhood, Best Car-Free Weekend Getaway, Best Day Trip From Baltimore, Best Landmark, and more.
Published: September 22, 2010
Best Reason to Live Here
Don't need one
We don't need a reason to live in Baltimore, good, bad, or "best." We're here now, and we probably couldn't sell our house if we tried, and anyway, why bother? Every year a hundred magazines and cheesy web sites release their various "best places to live (and work!)" lists, befuddling everyone in and out of the anointed burgs. Enough of that. Unless you're on the lam, or an economic refugee, just stay put and make the best of things. Our grandparents and great-grandparents used to do that unthinkingly. Mostly it came out of the Depression. But decades later, some eggheads gave it a name: "building community."
Let's just go by what you can walk to. There's the Hippo and Grand Central, plus a huge mess of other bars and restaurants fit for out-of-towners as well as locals. MICA is within walking distance, as is the Meyerhoff, the Lyric, the Walters, and the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Hexagon, the Charles Theatre, Charm City Art Space, the Copycat, and the Windup Space are all a short stroll north. Both ye olde light rail and that newfangled Charm City Circulator make it even easier to venture out via public transportation, and Penn Station is just a few blocks away if you want to get totally out of town. Rents are, if not exactly cheap, still not as crazy as most places with these amenities. World-wide, we mean.
Best Car-Free Weekend Getaway
(877) 265-8287, boltbus.com
We can dream of better, cheaper, faster ways to get to New York. Amtrak could cut its fares by 75 percent and put an end to those inexplicable delays 20 minutes outside of Manhattan. Baltimore City could subsidize free high-speed helicopter flights from the Belvedere Hotel to the 34th Street Macy's. New Jersey could eliminate speed limits on the turnpike. But until then, the Bolt Bus is about as good as a bus line can be without installing hot tubs and a bar. Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, good-humored drivers, clean bathrooms, and even a charming Twitter account are its hallmarks, and while we wish the buses wouldn't stop at rest areas on the way up to New York, we can't see any bus line doing much better in the near future.
Best Day Trip From Baltimore
It's best to do this day trip on a Friday, even better if it's the first Friday of the month. Arrive mid-afternoon to catch the Central Market, the country's oldest continuously running farmers market, where Amish vendors peddle grass-fed, free-range meats and the best fresh doughnuts. As that winds down, First Friday, which is active year-round, kicks into gear. In good weather, the streets are full of musicians, sculptures, and performers, and the art galleries, including the cutting-edge Infantree Gallery, always coordinate their opening receptions. We also recommend sampling the local fare, including Iron Hill's delicious menu and array of beers brewed on site, and Fenz's continental cuisine.
The artifacts of Fells Point's past as a working waterfront still peek through, here and there: the old freight-rail tracks set in the cobblestones, for instance, and the derelict pier that juts into the harbor west of Bond Street Wharf. For the most part, though, reminders of the Point's maritime legacy——such as Moran Towing Corp.'s tugboats, which this year departed to make way for a long-stalled hotel planned for the Baltimore Recreation Pier——are themselves memories. Thankfully, there's still Broadway Pier, a public space where people can get out on the water to imagine how it helped build Baltimore. And it isn't just a relic: Visiting ships and schooners sometimes berth here, movies are screened, water taxis move tourists to and fro, parties are thrown, and anyone who wants to can saunter out and take a gander up, down, or across the water, where the harbor's last remaining industrial outpost, the Domino Sugar plant, looms large and sweetens the air. Baltimore needs more such spaces, but until it has them, there's nothing better.
The Christopher Columbus Obelisk
Harford Road and Parkside Drive
In the recent flap over the city's latest advertising campaign, very few people mentioned Baltimore's best, and most accurate, nickname: Monument City. The city is lousy with monuments, the best of which pay homage to historical figures and events with no connection to Baltimore. Although it's not as kitschy as the monuments to William Wallace or the end of Prohibition in Druid Hill Park, the Christopher Columbus Obelisk, widely thought to be the first monument to Columbus in the United States, is typical of the kinds of structures with which past Baltimoreans have decorated the city. Erected in 1792, after the French consul in Baltimore realized that there wasn't a single monument to Columbus in his adopted home, the white obelisk stayed on the consul's former property until 1963, when it was moved to the corner of Harford Road and Parkside Drive, where it continues to sit, unknown and majestic, yet another tribute to someone who never set foot in Baltimore.
Bank of America Building
10 Light St.
When the Baltimore Trust Company built this magnificent structure in 1929, it was the tallest building in the city. Even though it lost that title 68 years later, it still remains one of the city's most beautiful——its green and gilded roof is a highlight of the skyline. The art deco/Mayan-revival building only gets more impressive on closer examination, from the gold sea life and stone lions that adorn its façade to its dramatic arched entrance and two-story foyer. They truly don't make 'em like this anymore.
Best Library Branch
4330 Edmondson Ave., (410) 396-0946, prattlibrary.org
Now that we're into the second——or third——year of the recession, the need for free things to do is more dire than ever. Fortunately, the Enoch Pratt library system has been busy updating its branches, and the latest major renovation, in Edmondson Village, is one of the best, with bright, airy rooms and updated technology. Instead of putting all the computers in a single, unhappy room, the library sprinkles them throughout, allowing children to use computers in one room and adults in another, plus a stand-alone computer center for those who need to spend more time applying for jobs. And while too many libraries have reduced their book holdings, the Edmondson branch keeps many books on the shelves, making the library as nice a place to browse for books as it is to spend time on the computer.
Best Post Office
5730 Cottonworth Ave.,(410) 323-3782
To award the Mount Washington Post Office branch Best Post Office is a little self-defeating, as its consistent efficiency relies on its relative obscurity. Tucked away on tiny, dead-end Cottonworth Avenue, with little visible signage from the busier roads, this branch is out of sight, out of mind, so the lines are always short. While Hampden's post office closes for two hours in the middle of the day, leaving parcel-clutching patrons spending their entire lunchbreaks waiting for it to reopen, those in the know head up the road to the Mount Washington branch and are in and out in under 10 minutes, leaving them enough time to grab lunch too.
Best City Service
We've always been recyclers, and this year the city made it easier on us. No more trying to remember if paper or containers go out, no more waiting two weeks to put out the fallen soldiers after a house party, no more hoping the neighbors don't notice the number of refreshing alcoholic beverages we consume biweekly, and no more dividing up papers, bottles, cans, and plastics in the house——although we still do that, 'cause we like things neat. Once a week, the white trucks take our non-trash, whether it's two yellow bins full or a stuffed paper bag, and that means less clutter in our joint, less trash in our alley cans, and less thinking on our part. Winner.
Best Fuck-You Courtesy
If you live or work or just get around by car in the city, parking tickets can stack up quickly. And if you have just three of them 30 days past due, your car can get booted. Time was you had to go pay your tickets in person before a crew was sent to remove the boot. But here in the super-convenient future, you can call to pay and receive a code to unlock and return it yourself. Your reward for doing the city's job? A fee for using a credit card, a "convenience charge" for interacting with a fucking automated system, and a huge fee if you don't get the boot back to the city within 48 hours. Anybody up for a little Project Mayhem action?
Best New Public Servant
Food Policy Director Holly Freishtat
OK, so maybe Baltimore native Holly Freishtat hasn't been the city's food czar long enough to earn any prizes. (The position was created and filled in May, with nonprofit funding.) But as one of the few cities in the country with a paid food policy director, Baltimore deserves a shout-out. Freishtat's unenviable task is to improve both demand for and access to healthy foods in a city with multiple "food deserts" and 30 percent more obese residents than the national average. It's a tall order, particularly with no budget. But the presence of a sustainable food expert in the city's Planning Department is a step in the right direction.
Best Bus Line
Charm City Circulator
Some praise is born out of jealousy as much as sincerity, and spending a summer waiting for your MTA bus to go home while multiple Charm City Circulators go by is a surefire way to make you seethe with envy at being able to ride the free, green(ish) bus lines coursing through town. So while, yes, the CCC only services central Baltimore——from Penn Station to Federal Hill, Sowebo to Harbor East, City Hill to Fells Point through Hopkins——right now, if you make the effort, it's easier to bop around downtown than it's ever been. Want to hit a School 33 opening and then meet friends for a movie at the Charles? So long, $12 cab ride, hello comfortable free lift. And having it during the office-grind week really opens up lunch options: Few things help stress-coping as much as leaving the desk, catching a ride downtown, grabbing a quick bite, and enjoying a casual 10-block stroll back to work. Only a bike is more convenient.
Best Cycling Improvement
The Baltimore Bike Map
Available at most local bike shops, baltimorecity.gov/bike
It's not paint on a street or new bike racks, but the city's biking map is long overdue and an all-around great addition to the bike-positive Baltimore cause. The map shows not only the city's permanent bike infrastructure, but preferred and heavily used routes around the city, as well as no-go zones and less bike-trafficked streets. That's helpful not just to new residents or new cyclists, but to folks who've been riding in Baltimore for a long time. It's not all a crappy place to ride a bike; you just need to know how to get there. Here's how.
Best Dubious Urban Planning
The pratt Street bike/bus lane
OK, yes, we are well aware that we are supposed to praise every little thing the city does for bikes and progressive urban culture in general. But, c'mon, bikes and buses were not meant to share a lane. First, a bus is about the biggest thing on the road and a bike is the smallest. It's like having a kitten and a boar share a cage. Plus, buses make stops every two blocks, forcing riders back out into traffic, sometimes suddenly, which is dangerous. More than anything, though, the bike/bus shared lanes show something fundamental about where Baltimore is in its bike-forward mindset——or where it is not. We are still mostly getting scraps. A couple of blocks of bike lane here——but only when we're repaving anyhow——a couple of signs there, but nothing that would take the smallest thing away from motor traffic.
Author, naturalist, and public servant Anne Draddy is Baltimore's version of Johnny Appleseed and a historian to boot. As coordinator of TreeBaltimore, a mayoral initiative under the Department of Recreation and Parks, Draddy leads an ambitious effort to double the city's tree canopy from 27 to 40 percent within 30 years. It's not just some Birkenstocked pipe dream. Trees improve air quality, increase property values, and even, Draddy contends, reduce violence and aggression in humans. At least 6,000 trees a year for the past three years have been planted so far, and this year, cuts to the city's street planting budget make Tree Baltimore's outreach to residents and businesses even more important. With her arboreal organizing work and role as co-author of Druid Hill Park: The Heart of Historic Baltimore, Draddy, more than just about anyone, is connecting the dots between Baltimore's natural resources and its history, health, economy and overall livability. Not bad for a city employee.
Best Escape to the Tropics
The Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens of Baltimore
3100 Swan Drive, Druid Hill Park, (410) 396-0008, baltimoreconservatory.org
Just stroll through the Palm House, the glass-covered structure we all equate with the Conservatory, and you're transported to a Victorian world where a love of conquering and collecting built a tropical paradise in miniature. The high glass walls dripping with condensation and the thick humid air are eternally opposed to the churn of the seasons outside. And the collection of palmae, thick and resplendent, is just one of the beautiful rooms you can stroll through. You might be enchanted by the obsessive charms of the Orchid Room, or if you're like us, and just need a dry heat, you head to the Desert House. The massive agave plant and its neighbors along the pebble-lined path always seem to transport us to some roasting highway deep into the high desert of the mind. The conservatory, run by the city's Department of Recreation and Parks and supported by the nonprofit Baltimore Conservatory Association, is home to an acre and a half of flora in 35 flowerbeds. There may be snow on the ground outside, but here the land changes, growing wild and varied, if only for a hour or so.
Best Pocket Park
Abell Open Space
32nd Street between Guilford and Abell Avenues
Pocket parks are everywhere in Baltimore, but too many of them are just empty patches of green with maybe a half-hearted attempt at a community garden or an underused playground. But the Abell Open Space, nestled in Charles Village, is a model of what a pocket park could be. Stop by on the weekends or any weekday afternoon and you'll see parents and children spending time outdoors. In the summer, the park even hosts a movie series, showcasing directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Hayao Miyazaki on Friday evenings.
Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park
Stretching from near the harbor all the way out to the west side of the beltway, Gwynns Falls is huge, underused, underdeveloped, and full of actual dirt trails and real-life woods (as opposed to the shoehorned nature found in many urban parks). And it's right here in the city. It boggles the mind how many people have no idea what's down there. A ginormous part of a city's livability is the availability of places like this——where you can feel like you're not in a city——and Gwynns is one of the best urban escapes on the East Coast, though the city has all but completely slashed its funding. Write a letter.
Playground at Stadium Place
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Family Center Y at Stadium Place, 900 E. 33rd St., stadiumplayground.org
This playground on the former Memorial Stadium property captures the city's spirit. The park, a miniature town built of recycled plastic "lumber," was designed with kid input and built by hordes of volunteers in April 2005. There was a boat, a theater, a shopping village, towers, swings and jungle gyms galore, plus a volcano. It was an instant success with families in surrounding neighborhoods, so when vandals burned down the park in September 2008, kids (and parents) who loved this maze of brightly painted wacky structures were devastated. Spirits were not broken, however, and volunteers rebuilt the playground, restoring it in May 2009 more or less to its original layout. It's a testament to the power of collective action and neighborly spirit we don't get enough of in this city. And judging by the typical Saturday afternoon mayhem, the kids still absolutely love it.
Best Place to Walk Your Dog
Stoney Run Park
Stoney Run Park is a quiet, narrow stretch beginning around Wyndhurst Avenue in Roland Park, and continuing parallel to Keswick Avenue, tucked among picturesque residential neighborhoods. The park's trails run along the edge of a slow-moving stream; wildflowers, grasses, and trees provide additional natural beauty. On evenings and weekends, dog owners are often seen at the edge of the stream, watching their dogs splash happily along next to them, or jogging the trails with their furry friends at their sides. But walk during work hours, and the place is your own. Small yellow birds sit on cornflowers while frogs sun themselves in the stream. The only unnatural things around are the occasional sign or plastic trash can for polite disposal of your pooch's business.
Best Place to Hike
4915 Greenspring Ave., (410) 367-2217, cylburnassociation.org
With the opening of a new visitor's center, the Cylburn Arboretum is a much more approachable place to stop by while seeking some time out of the hubbub of the city. But if you just see the gardens, you're missing out on one of the best urban hiking spots in Baltimore. With two and a half miles of trails, helpfully labeled and described in a map you can get at the visitor's center, you can easily spend a couple of hours in the outdoors, or you can take a short hike through the woods knowing that your car isn't too far away.
Best Place to Run
A few years ago, Lake Montebello got a make-over, but it took a while for the cyclists, inline skaters, social walkers, stroller pushers, car washers, and, yes, joggers to rediscover it. Now you can go almost any time of the day and find a cross-section of the city——from guys in fatigues doing training exercises in public to busy professionals who use their walk as an excuse to make more phone calls——making their way around the one and one-third mile loop. Newly installed gym-style exercise stations provide a nice break from running. While the loop gets repetitive after two or three circles, by that point you're probably done.
Best Place to Bike
The Baltimore and Annapolis Trail
Begins at Dorsey Road in Glen Burnie; ends at Boulters Way and Route 50, dnr.md.gov/publiclands/bikeb&a.asp
Of course, there's no guarantee that you won't get jumped, have rocks chucked at your head, or get spit on, or that your bike won't fold up in the world's largest pothole out this way, but we can say with assurance that the odds are a lot less than most city riding. Starting at the southern tip of Baltimore/Washington International Airport, the B&A trail shoots straight down the peninsula along an old railroad bed toward Annapolis, ending right at the Route 450 bridge. For 14 miles, dig the county backyards, bamboo forests, wetlands, fresh(er) air, and cool old train bridges along the way. It's pretty flat, smooth, and safe, and it's even accessible by light rail.
Best Place to Swim
It takes forever to get to the beach——stupid Bay Bridge traffic——and, no matter how delightful it is to swim in the reservoirs, it's illegal, and Central Booking isn't a nice place to towel off. So where can hot and sweaty Baltimoreans go to cool off during the humidity haze of summer? The municipal pools! There are a ton of them spread out throughout the city. They are also startlingly cheap——$1-$1.50 a visit. The city considered not opening some of them at all this season due to budget constraints——a scary thought after a scorching summer——but they were all open through Labor Day, thanks to a few private benefactors.
Best Place to Paddle
The Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River
It may be trash-strewn and sewage-laden, but the Patapsco River's Northwest Branch——which starts at Fort McHenry and includes Baltimore's Inner Harbor——has, in recent years, become a paddler-friendly place. The growth of the Canton Kayak Club (cantonkayakclub.com) has increased both the number of paddlers and their points of access to and from the water, so you can look forward to plenty of company. Yachts, commercial vessels, and motorized small craft produce plenty of traffic, wakes, and standing waves to keep kayakers and canoeists on high alert, but nooks and crannies along the pier-laden shoreline provide places for safe harbor. If the waters get too crowded, there's always the option of waiting out the rush hour ashore and catching a bite and a beer in the harbor-side neighborhoods. Remember, though, that lathering up with plenty of strong soap helps reduce the risk of infection after coming in contact with Baltimore's nasty harbor water, which at times hosts massive fish kills. Enjoy!
Best Place to Bowl
Hillendale Bowling Center
1045 Taylor Ave., Towson, (410) 821-1172
Not hard to win this category anymore. There's but a handful of places left in Baltimore dedicated to the sport of little kings. When we bowl duckpins, we bowl in Dundalk, or Patterson Bowling Center, or Stoneleigh, or . . . well, there's not much more "or" anymore. One place we forget about in our city-centered brains is Hillendale. With 28 lanes, it's big enough for spontaneous bowling parties or squeezing in a quick couple frames. It was built in 1957 and retains that mid-century charm, with a modern dash of loud carpeting. The food is, well, bowling alley-quality, but french fries and a cold beer from that six-pack you brought in——BYOB alcohol policy here——is just fine by us.
Yeah, it's only been a month and a half, but we like what we see in the O's new manager. He commands respect. He comes to games prepared. He has a strategy. He has tactics. He's a quote machine. He honors the game, the tradition, and the fans. The guy even took number 26 on his uniform——the number worn by his friend and mentor, former O's manager Johnny Oates. Class. We haven't seen this in some time, and we like the Bucky ball. All due respect to Dave Trembley, who did the best he could, but he was in over his head, and it's all too obvious from the way the Birds have been playing these last few weeks. We'll be watching and listening through the season, hoping we can play spoiler to the AL East teams above. And there's next year. For real. This time. We hope.
We were so used to that venerable formula of awesome defense/mediocre offense that we had basically become cool with never getting to cheer for a dynamic, game-changing offensive playmaker. But with the emergence of running back Ray Rice, that's completely changed. Rice has such ridiculous moves that he's a threat to make a highlight-reel run to the end zone on any carry, and with his pass-catching ability, he can turn a simple swing pass into a big play. We were happy winning ugly before, but we're not ashamed to win pretty now too.
In its seventh year, the Transmodern Festival unfurled its usual four days of unusual culture and experimental art, but in all honesty it's the festival's welcoming openness that makes it such an annual treat. Whether it's the film and performances at its opening night at the Baltimore Museum of Art or the vertical sprawl taking over at the H&H building (including Nudashank, co-operated by City Paper contributor Alex Ebstein) for the weekend, the 2010 installment offered a wealth of visiting artists——such as New York's Joseph Keckler and the United Kingdom's People Like Us——and created one of the most adorable environments in which to flip your wig. And if there's anything more fun than the Baltimore Westsiders Marching Band fronting the cavalcade of fools that made up the Sunday afternoon Love Parade, we've yet to come across it in this lifetime.
Best Tourism-Based Economic Impact
Otakon, the three-day anything-goes anime celebration, is the city's largest and most lucrative convention. Drawing out-of-towners to Baltimore since 1999, Otakon sells out area hotels well in advance and intensifies area vendor sales, making a massive financial impression. Otakon saw its largest attendance in 2010, with 29,274 fans and staff. Visit Baltimore says it expects $18 million from Otakon through 2012, a low estimate considering its $12.5 million contribution in 2009. (Data for 2010 were unavailable at press time.) Baltimore hosted 88 conventions in the last three months of 2009, and two runners-up provided the city a combined 11,000 headcount. Down the street, Camden Yards struggles to fill less than half of its 50,000 seats, though it managed a $167 million impact with 86 games in 2006, the last year The Maryland Stadium Authority studied the economic impact of local sports teams; the Ravens boosted the state with $216 million that same year. That's $30 million per game for the Ravens, $1.9 million for the Os, and $4 million per day for Otakon. Not shabby for a bunch of fanboys and -girls.
Best Non-art Museum
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
803 E. Pratt St., (443) 263-1800, africanamericanculture.org
Non-art" is a bit of a misnomer here, because the Reggie more than holds its own as an art museum. From its recent From Process to Print: Graphic Works by Romare Bearden to Material Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists opening next February, the Reggie adds a welcome dose of contemporary African-American artists to Baltimore's institutional visual arts landscape. What makes the museum so much more is built into its very mission: to create dialogues between arts and culture, between history and the here and now, and in the process serve as a vital intellectual and social hub for documenting and exploring the rich and varied African-American experience in the city and state. In this ambition, the museum has no peer.
Place to Take Out-of-Town Visitors
American Visionary Art Museum
800 Key Highway, (410) 244-1900, avam.org
We actually did this recently: A distant relative was passing through town with her fiancé, whom we'd never met, and we planned a Sunday afternoon meet-up at AVAM. Baltimore doesn't lack for great museums with don't-miss collections, but something about AVAM (then featuring the now-closed Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness show) felt right. And it was, well, a little odd. We didn't know them, and they didn't know us, and everyone tried politely to make sense of each other in this strange and unusual place. But something about AVAM's embrace of the oddly passionate, the dogged and damned, made it feel like a perfect intro to the town, and it didn't just break the ice between relative strangers, it melted it. Oh, and they made out like bandits with souvenirs at the huge, insane gift shop.
Best Place to Take Kids
Ordinarily, we award this superlative to one of the big attractions down by the harbor, and they remain the big kiddie draws, to be sure. But there's something to be said for simplifying both your kids' lives and your own and leaving the high-concept edutainment behind for a walk in the woods, a romp on the playground, and the kind of random encounters with other nature-seekers that happen when you leave your car and your media bubble behind. The big city parks (Druid Hill, Patterson) will do fine, but we favor parks with flowing water, because a creek = hours of kid entertainment, and for that we often head out to close-in county spots such as Double Rock Park (8211 Texas Ave., Parkville; shoes and a squirt or two of hand sanitizer afterward are musts). Best of all, admission and parking are always free.
Druid Hill Park
In the late 1800s, architect George A. Frederick designed City Hall, the Palm House at the Conservatory, and various Druid Hill Park gems. But an observatory he designed at the southeast corner of the park offers more than a vantage point. The Moorish Tower visually connects the Victorian era to the sped-up, heavy concrete and asphalt years that followed. From the Tower you could once gaze along the Jones Falls, soaking in a panorama of the little towns and neighborhoods that made up the Baltimore "metro" area. Now, the predominant vista is twisting ribbons of highway and the industrial corridor that developed since the Falls was turned into an underground stream that runs along and under the terminus of an interstate highway. The park behind you remains more or less intact, a trove of leafy picnic spots, but the city, a declined manufacturing nexus carved through the heart by a concrete canyon, is laid out in its degraded glory. It's a view the old architect might consider horrifying, yet it is moving and perversely beautiful. For this we gave up Frederick's pastoral landscape