Liveability Is … Staying Alive

David Nichols concludes his series on urban liveability with a visit to Baltimore.

Row houses in Baltimore via Finin/WikiCommons

Row houses in Baltimore via Finin/WikiCommons

Liveability is a lot about perspective. Melbourne may well be a terribly liveable city from some points of view; a glib reading might even suggest it’s a better place to be homeless than, say, Anchorage. The biggest problem with ‘liveability’ is, of course, the failure of imagination of the majority of people who it.

Of all the cities I visited in the USA, Baltimore is the one which most intrigued me; if the rest of the world outside the US fell into the sea (which, for a large percentage of Americans, may as well have already happened) there’d be worse places to live than Baltimore. But that of course is me, middle-class and riddled with assumptions about what a life I can expect to lead in the west should consist of. Baltimore would be amazingly liveable - if you had a good job, lived near the light rail for your commute, had a car to get out to other places, and knew where ‘not to go.’

Baltimore is, like a good many similar American cities, racially divided. I stayed in a neighbourhood whose inhabitants seemed simultaneously relieved and embarrassed that it remains a ‘white enclave’. That this is a city in rather acute crisis is evidenced by the many inner city streets (such as Broadway) on which block after block of elegant row houses stand, but maybe only one or two are occupied.

Randy Newman, on probably his least impressive 1970s album Little Criminals, sang a fairly humdrum song called ‘Baltimore’. He sang of a place where it was “hard … just to live”. Baltimoreans have probably long ago gotten over that well-meaning slur, although they’ll be dealing with The Wire for some time to come. There is a pervasive ambience of difficulty in Baltimore. Its surface is tough, barely scratchable. To live here, no doubt, you need the long view.

I did hear testimony – credible testimony – that many find compensation for the poverty and other tribulations of Baltimore in its community life. I also saw some of the humble delights of a city which has kept some of its institutions from long ago: for instance, I visited one of the most delightful, run down, deco cinemas I’ve seen since the 70s, still functioning as a single-screen, apparently fairly unrenovated cinema. It’s called the Senator, and it features remarkable painted foyer decorations, including an extraordinary image of a young man in medieval garb using a large film camera to record a stationary owl. It also boasts despondent teenage staff who – when we turned up to see J Edgar on time to find it had already started – had no special advice to offer other than we had better go in. In a high sheen nation full of obsequious courtesy and replicated, predictable experiences, this was refreshing. And I was lucky enough to visit The Book Thing, a huge (three room?) book redistribution centre. It distributes free second-hand books on Saturdays and Sundays for anyone who wants them, and plenty do.

Later, I chanced upon a downtown church book sale and picked up a remarkable tome from the early 20th century on the growing and marketing of celery, as well as a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. I was blessed to have a guide keen to show me some of the city’s various delights, such as a vegan soul-food restaurant, the Goldstein’s bagel house in Pikeville; additionally, a museum of ‘outsider’ art. Which only goes to show the dangers of popping into a city for a few days with one’s curiosity intact and a still-not-quite-yet-maxed credit card.

Baltimore's Peabody Library, courtesy Friends of the Johns Hopkins University Libraries

Baltimore's Peabody Library, courtesy Friends of the Johns Hopkins University Libraries

But there’s more to Baltimore than the doldrums. The city has held onto – even despite a little bit of pomo eye-rolling – many of its pop culture icons and sumptuous facilities from its industrial glory days. The opulent Peabody Library is by any measure one of the world’s finest.

What Baltimore actually suffers from the most is that it’s in the United States of America, a nation where out of sight is out of mind, and movement of capital is so heartless it’s hard to believe it’s controlled by actual humans. Piecemeal solutions to problems abound: the city’s crushing difficulties are, however, so extensive as to be insurmountable. Liveability? In Baltimore the emphasis is more on staying alive.

Portrait of David Nichols

David Nichols is a writer and cultural commentator who is senior lecturer in urban planning at the University of Melbourne.