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From the Train, Baltimore Looks Like Hell

East Baltimore from Amtrak train by mr cookie.

Approaching Baltimore by train from the north, as thousands do each day, a story unfolds.

You see the lone First Mariner tower off in the distance of Canton, and the new Legg Mason building unfolding in Harbor East.

Quickly, you are in the depths of northeast Baltimore. You see the iconic Johns Hopkins logo emblazoned on what appears to be a citadel of institutional hegemony. It is a sprawling campus of unknown purpose, insulated from the decay that surrounds it.

Your eyes are caught by some rowhouses that are burned out. Then some more: rowhouses you can see through front to back. Rowhouses that look like they are slowly melting. Rowhouses with junk, antennas, laundry, piles of God-knows-what out back. Not good. Scary, in fact. Ugly, at least.

Then a recent-ish sign proclaimig “The *New* East Baltimore.”  Visitors are shocked to see that the great Johns Hopkins (whatever it all is, they’ve just heard of it and don’t know the University and the Hospital are not colocated) is surrounded by such obvious blight.

Viewers are then thrust into the Pennsylvania Railroad Tunnel where they fester, shell-shocked for two minutes while they gather their bags to disembark at Penn Station, wondering if the city they are about to embark into will be the hell for which they just saw the trailer.

Appearances matter. Impressions matter. One task that social entrepreneurs could take on to improve the perception (and the reality) of Baltimore would be simply this: make Baltimore look better from the train.

We know that the reality of Baltimore is rich, complex, historic, beautiful and hopeful.  We ought to use the power of aesthetics and design to help the rest of the world begin to see the better parts of the city we love.

Author’s Note: my father-in-law Colby Rucker was the one that first pointed out to me how awful Baltimore looks from the train.  It was on a train trip from New York to Baltimore today that I was inspired to jot down this thought.

If you would like to read a good book about how places can make you feel and convey important impressions, read The Experience of Place (1991) by Tony Hiss (son of the controversial Alger Hiss). They were both Baltimoreans.

  • ecogordo

    Philly and Jersey going into New York look pretty much the same as Baltimore unfortunately.

    Actually, the view is appropriate since it is an accurate picture of who we are or who we have become as a society.

    Artists could come in and paint a different view, but it would be a facade. Decay is a part of captialism, but the re-building has a cost and we have run out of money, mostly spent on McMansions and SUVs. That is the old normal, get ready for the new normal. The new picture is being painted as we read.

  • http://openid.aol.com/popvoxdave davetroy

    Yeah, our east-coast peer cities don’t look a lot better, but in my opinion Baltimore is appallingly bad. And with our reputation for crime and blight, I think we need to work extra-hard to overcome those stereotypes.

    Many of the remedies don’t involve a lot of money.

    If the city were to release accurate information so that interactive blight maps could be prepared, for example, we could raise awareness about areas where the city is ailing and start a dialog about solutions.

    Unfortunately the city seems to want to sit on that kind of data, and that’s to everyone’s detriment. Open data means better cities. And it doesn’t cost anything.

  • LootBag

    It’s probably important to note that real estate next to railroad tracks has always been less-than-desirable. Noise has always been a factor, and, in the past, the pollutants from steam engines was no picnic either.

    It might be nice to create parks and fix up the houses next to the tracks, but anyone looking to invest in such a venture would want an answer to the question: “who would want to live there?”.

    I think it’s safe to say that many fine and beautiful cities look pretty ugly when approached by railroad.

    The view from the train is fleeting, whereas the view (and the noise and the smell) from the land adjacent to the tracks is more persistent.

  • aviars

    I agree it really looks bad from the train comming from D.C. One word TREES! This city needs a lot more trees! I know they are working on it. More attention to garbage collection in the bay/harbor. 100s of floating Utz chip bags…yuck.

  • http://dotcommunist.wordpress.com/ dotcommunist.wordpress.com/

    I used to commute to New York on a regular basis on Amtrak, and would look out the window as the train passed through that stretch of Baltimore headed out toward Middle River. It *is* post-apocalyptic. There’s no more harsh view of the city than the early morning light filtering through gutted rowhouses and reflecting off shattered glass, revealing rubble and ruin. Of course, the view from the train passing through parts of Philadelphia is at least as bad. But that’s not an excuse.

  • Clarence Wooten

    This post is spot-on. Something does need to be done about it. It basically confirms to many that the images that they saw on the acclaimed show ‘The Wire’ are indeed correct (the Wire was my favorite show but that’s no excuse).

    I’d get involved in making something happen to improve or at lease block the view of those row homes.

  • Ken

    I just came across your post, oh about months late, however, better late than never. I live in Ottawa now, but used to live in a city in Ontario called Hamilton. People driving to Toronto or oppositely, to Niagara Falls would always drive over the Skyway Bridge. As they drive over they get only one view of Hamilton and this is it:

    http://frumoutdoorsman.files.wordpress.com/2009

    People always think that Hamilton must be hell on earth, but actually surprisingly it actually quite livable. The west end is lushly forested and there are many quaint shopping areas and parks. I always say that Hamilton is Ontario's best kept secret, which you can immediately see why when you get the view non-residents get as they pass by.

  • Ken

    I just came across your post, oh about months late, however, better late than never. I live in Ottawa now, but used to live in a city in Ontario called Hamilton. People driving to Toronto or oppositely, to Niagara Falls would always drive over the Skyway Bridge. As they drive over they get only one view of Hamilton and this is it:

    http://frumoutdoorsman.files.wordpress.com/2009

    People always think that Hamilton must be hell on earth, but actually surprisingly it actually quite livable. The west end is lushly forested and there are many quaint shopping areas and parks. I always say that Hamilton is Ontario's best kept secret, which you can immediately see why when you get the view non-residents get as they pass by.

  • Felix

    I dunno, the rowhouses look kind of fun. Granted if The Wire is anything to go by then Bubbles is probably lurking in there somewhere, shooting up, but Bubbles is kind of fun, too. Nothing snobbish about them, anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/FunKayHol Karla Holland

    Baltimore, especially the east ( which you see departing from south or arriving from the north) is a step above those images taken during the great depression. The only city I know that is in such a blatant state of misery but the locals think it’s disneyland. The City Hall has such a mental hold on the people, they can’t see it for what it is. Just shows brainwashing is a terrible thing.