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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters

Hacktreks in the USA

Turning up the charm
Barry Dunstall investigates Baltimore’s efforts to reinvent itself as a tourist destination.

For many years, Baltimore in cookie-making, clam-baking Maryland had a reputation for little more than depressed industrialism and urban decay. Tourists were hardly likely to stop in the city when the east coast giants of New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC were all just a short journey away by road or rail. But then the powers-that-be decided to strike back with a charm offensive. Baltimore may still not be the most beautiful city in the US, but the authorities have invested more than enough in make-up for the place to look mighty fine in the right light.

Even as I walk through the gloomy summer rain, the revitalised Inner Harbor area throngs with people crowding in and out of the sparkling glass-fronted stores and seafood restaurants. There are Baltimoreans who say the historic harbour has been turned into nothing more than a bland monument to capitalism, as characterless as any other shopping mall in the US. But surely old, red brick warehouses and power plants are better converted into Barnes & Noble bookstores and Hard Rock Cafés than just left neglected to dream about their industrial pasts.

To an outsider’s eye at least, nothing much seems wrong. And there are, after all, ways to escape the orgy of selling and buying. You can head underwater for a start. The USS Torsk, the last American submarine to sink an enemy warship in World War Two, floats in the harbour and is open to tourists. Or you can head up 23 stories, as I do, to the observation level of the 423-foot-high World Trade Center. The building, overseeing marine affairs since 1977, is the tallest pentagonal structure in the world.

At sea level itself is the USS Constellation, the only Civil War-era tall ship still afloat in the US. College students on summer jobs enthusiastically show children around, demonstrating how the cannons worked and so on, while the parents take in the more detailed tour commentary on audio handsets. I spend most of my time avoiding the ship’s low wooden beams, which must have caused more head wounds than the warfare.

Maritime shenanigans also led to Baltimore’s greatest contribution to US culture. One night during the War of 1812, American Francis Scott Key was on board a British ship, negotiating the release of a prisoner of war, as on land the two armies fought for the city. After a night of bombing and battle, he awoke to find the US flag still flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, inspiring him to write the words to the national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. All together now…

For me, though, the highlight of the harbourside is the National Aquarium. Huge and pristine, the building attracts long queues nearly every day, but the wait is well worthwhile. Beautifully presented and spacious throughout, for the sealife and the visitors, the aquarium’s vast array includes dolphins, octopuses, sharks and stingrays (not all together, obviously). Fishing is banned, by the way.

Walking around the city again, I notice none of the traffic lights seem to quite work properly. People in Baltimore don’t so much cross the street as dive for cover. Pedestrians tend to move in packs for safety. Nobody runs, but everybody walks like hell.

Anyway, within a huge home run of the Inner Harbor is another sign of Baltimore’s regeneration. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the city’s Major League baseball team, opened in 1992 where a railway yard once stood and now exudes lazy charm. The ground staff and ticket collectors wear flat black caps, bow ties and white shirts as if living in the 1940s. Thickening the nostalgic warmth, a bronze statue honours George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth, Baltimore’s greatest baseballing son, born in the city in 1895 before achieving immortality as a New York Yankee.
The ‘Babe’ may have left for the Big Apple, but make no mistake, Baltimore is no longer just a city to pass quickly through on the way to New York or Washington DC. There are plenty of reasons to stay and look at the urban facelift of the self-proclaimed ‘Charm City USA’.

© Barry Dunstall June 2003


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