The challenge — and joy — of writing about Charm City
Most of my fiction is based in Baltimore. I’ve written this before, but I discovered the city through dates and, consequently, have always seen it romantically. It was a happy coincidence that this occurred when I started taking my writing seriously.
I spent weekends in the late 90s (that seems like so long ago) walking the streets, a guidebook in one hand and notebook in the other. When I remember it now, it’s hard not to picture myself as a creepy dude wandering around by himself, staring at people’s homes. But that’s what I did.
My writing started to come naturally, and so did a novel. I’d concentrated on short stories to that point, which was probably due to a degree in creative writing and subsequent graduate workshops that focused (almost exclusively) on that format.
But those stories shared a theme, and that theme stitched together until new characters were born and breathed and stood. And they walked with me through Baltimore, lived in homes or shopped in stores, heartbroken or happy or in despair.
That period of discovery was the most exciting time of my life. At first, all I knew was Baltimore’s harbor, and I liked the way the city curved around the water, as if the buildings rested on the edge of a submerged petal.
But I also knew the harbor wasn’t a fair representation, and I wanted to see more. I ended up in neighboring, somewhat stoic Federal Hill, and then slipped into the eccentricities of Fells Point. Nothing was nicer than visiting Fells on a weekend morning in the summer, when it felt like the sun had blown a warm, cheerful breath through the streets.
John Waters and 34th Street led me to Hampden, and Rafael Alvarez took me to Highlandtown. I fell deeply in love with Highlandtown. Both of my published novels (well, the second is going to be published in June) include scenes in its Patterson Park, and my wife and I were engaged there.
But I wanted to know the whole city. I never expected to have the in-depth sociological understanding of it that Alvarez and David Simon do (as well as writers like Laura Lippman, Nik Korpon, and others), but I promised myself that none of it would be intentionally neglected.
So I ventured into more troubled neighborhoods, as well. Maybe the reputation of those areas as drug- and crime-filled dystopias was somewhat overblown, or maybe I was just fortunate, but I never felt threatened when I wandered their streets.
I still spend time in Baltimore, but far less than I’d like. I miss it. It’s weird to have this much love for a place you’ve never called home, but I’m also a military brat, and the concept of home has been a moving target, a connection more emotional than physical.
But even though I’ve never resided in the city, my characters have, hopefully believably. And it’s jarring to see the Freddie Gray chapter added to Baltimore’s history, to watch the city’s emotional landscape redefined, marred, scarred. This isn’t the chapter you want to write.
And it’s a chapter that isn’t finished being written. Baltimore’s twin histories of crime and police brutality are well-documented and now common knowledge, and neither will end overnight. It seems that the threat of riots has passed but, like any recent bruise, the pain is present.
Still, there’s hope. Systematic change may be a long time coming, but small steps will be made, and occasionally there will be a jarring and messy leap forward. Bruises heal. This city will outlive us all and, years from now, new writers will be walking through Baltimore’s streets, taking notes, maybe reading about the unrest in 2015, and recalling what we did and what we wrote after the smoke from the fires cleared.