Why Baltimore is my New Muse
Since moving to Baltimore last year, I’ve found myself more inspired than I have been in close to a decade. Now, part of that was getting out of the soul-suck that is Washington DC, but a lot of it has to do with Baltimore itself and how it has reconnected me with the things that interested me years ago, with living the kind of life I like living. Baltimore has become my new muse for quite a number of reasons (many of which are intangible things like “feel”), some of which I’d like to explain here. Baltimore is so much more than the Inner Harbor and The Wire, and I think it’s important for people to learn a bit about what this city can be like for artists or entrepreneurs.
It’s a city that has a strong arts culture.
Thanks to the omnipresence of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in the city, as well as the several other colleges and universities here, there is no shortage of artists in Baltimore. Many of them end up sticking around after graduation as well. The end result of this is a heavy emphasis on arts in the city, as there’s a lot of artists around to push that dialogue down at city hall. MICA and Johns Hopkins recently decided to collaborate on a new dual-university film program with shared facilities based in Station North, an area that the city also has designated as the new “Arts & Entertainment District”. The two universities are renovating two fabulous old theaters (including the 100 year old Parkway) to house the new program, and it’s helping to revitalize a formerly fairly blighted area.
The high numbers of artists combined with large amounts of cheap real estate also means that there’s no shortage of affordable studios for said artists, meaning that a good many of the artists here are actually working artists instead of starving ones. The city even has special affordable housing that was built for and tailored to the many artists here. I can’t think of any other city that has a program like it.
Baltimore also has the highest number of murals per capita in the USA, multiple great art stores, countless galleries, several excellent theaters specializing in art/foreign/rare films, and a “do what you want” attitude that results in a tremendous amount of public art in the city – some less sanctioned than others.
It’s a city that doesn’t have much of anywhere to go but up, so it’s a great incubator for new projects.
After 60 years of straight population decline, Baltimore finally started to turn around as of the last major census. The numbers don’t lie either; anyone who has lived here for the last 10 years will tell you that whole neighborhoods are coming back with a vengeance. But, since the city is still near the bottom of its recovery, there isn’t far to fall if a project fails. This low “cost of failure” is a proven factor in how well a city attracts new talent. Space can be leased or bought for such a low price that if a venture fails, it’s unlikely to take an entrepreneur’s life savings with it. As a result, lots of people here seem to be the type to give a project a shot that might be riskier in a more expensive city.
It’s a city where it’s not hard to find people who inspire you.
Baltimore is full of people who care passionately about this city and the people in it. This is easily the most politically active city I’ve lived in, in terms of the involvement of average citizens. Since coming here I’ve been to two city council meetings, done research on several initiatives within the city, and generally been much more aware of and involved in the goings-on here than I was when I lived in DC or Boston. I find that I run into people I know all the time, and they’re always involved in the community in some way. Likewise, people are so passionate about their lives outside of work that it’s hard not to get swept along and out of your usual comfort zone.
Baltimore has so much infrastructure lying vacant that there’s a lot of encouragement for people to reuse what’s already here rather than building anew (well, in most areas – the waterfront is a different story). This results in some pretty cool stuff. A market with 18 restaurants in a former auto mechanic and car showroom? Sure! A clothing store in a former church? Why not? An old theater turned into classrooms and viewing space for a film program? Sounds like a great idea to me. A free bookstore in an old warehouse? Absolutely. You even get new takes on 100 year old rowhouses, with residents painting them bright colors or updating them with modern elements inside, blending two centuries of architectural trends. When buildings in the area are renovated, the city takes care to preserve the historical details whenever possible, while also bringing modern style into the mix.
It’s a city where people are encouraged to throw ideas at the wall and see what sticks.
As I mentioned above, Baltimore is a city with a low cost of failure. As a result, there’s a lot of encouragement from city hall and the culture here as a whole to try things out. There’s even a vacant lot in the middle of the city that is literally called “The YNot Lot” that is available, free of charge, for people to use for events, art projects, screenings, etc. There’s a restaurant/bar in town that is designed to be host to events like art openings, performances, board game nights, debate viewings, etc. Projects do fail from time to time, but in general they seem to do pretty well, thanks to a local enthusiasm for entrepreneurial ventures.
It’s a city where people aren’t ashamed to be themselves.
When I lived in the DC area, I often said that it was a city that pounds the personality out of everyone, remolding them into identical worker bees in gray suits. Inside, they’re still interesting people, but everyone is so afraid of not conforming to the dominant culture in DC that you’re unlikely to ever get them to open up about their unicycling hobby, or their interest in historic textiles, or their presence in the kink scene, or their weekend flying lessons.
Here in Baltimore, you will never get someone who lies about their profession or hobbies, and I find that Baltimoreans tend to identify more heavily with what they do in their spare time than what they do to make money. Among my friends are a chemistry professor, a librarian, a federal investigator, an editor, and a teacher, but you’re much more likely to hear about them as a standup comedian, a blacksmith, a sci-fi writer, a seamstress and political organizer, and a historical reenactor.
It’s a city that encourages self expression and the offbeat.
Hardly a day goes by in Baltimore where I don’t see someone that wouldn’t be out of place on a fashion catwalk. Jobs that require a suit and tie are fairly rare here, so there’s a lot more room for self expression through fashion and general appearance. I see lots of really creative things done with hair and makeup here, much like I saw in NYC in the early 2000s. Likewise, I see a lot of people who really have some serious game in the fashion department, especially some of the African American men here who have adopted elements of “Rude Boy” fashion. On the flip side, you can go out (as I often do) in a pair of torn cargo pants and an old hoodie and nobody will assume you’re homeless (unlike in DC) just because you’re not dressed up. There isn’t a lot of judgement going on in Baltimore, and the people here take advantage of that, myself included.
It’s a city that is visually striking.
Baltimore definitely has a “look”. That look involves a lot of bricks, a lot of symmetry, and a lot of subtle uniqueness. Like every other city I’ve lived in, it is decidedly distinct, but there’s something about it that I find very visually interesting. I’ve always been a fan of repetition and symmetry in my work, and you don’t get a better urban example of that than Baltimore’s rowhouses. The rowhouses also tend to result in a funneling of light that gives the city a very distinct and often harsh light that I find unique and distinctly Hopper-esque. Baltimore is also the most urban place I’ve lived since Boston, a city I left in 2007.
It’s a city that is close to several other cultural centers.
Baltimore decidedly benefits from being 1.5 hours away from Washington DC, 1.5 hours from Philadelphia, and 3 hours from New York City. We’re often seen as a cheaper option than any of those three, so we get a lot of shows that are still awesome but that are hesitant to put up the money for a more expensive city. The close proximity means that all three of those cities are within day-tripping range (though NYC is better as an overnight), which means that all of their cultural offerings are also within reach. Conversely, Baltimore is within easy reach of those cities, so we tend to get a lot of artists who are in the region but that are looking to experience something a bit different.
All in all I’ve been really pleased with this city, and I’m glad that I was able to move here last year. It was a bit of a risk, as I had literally been to the city all of once before I moved here and I knew very little about it, but it was a risk that has paid off in a major way. Baltimore is the first place that I’ve really felt “at home” on the east coast since I moved here more than 13 years ago. Rural Massachusetts made sure I knew I would always be an outsider, Boston was too centered on academia, and Washington DC was full of people that are exactly what I am not. Baltimore, on the other hand, accepts everyone with open arms as long as you’re willing to care about the city and its success, and doesn’t really care what you do here as long as you’re doing something to improve your adopted home. My life has never been on a particularly straight trajectory, but I hope that I’ll be able to stay in Baltimore for quite awhile to come.