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.