To me, a huge fan of Baltimore but still a tourist, it seemed like a random Saturday in the early summer. But in Charles Village, a neighborhood between Johns Hopkins and the harbor, it was the weekend of the “Pile of Craft” fair at St. John’s church. I found out about it by chance, leafing through a copy of City Paper while doing laundry. (One accumulates lots of laundry on long road trips!)
Dozens of tables filled the sanctuary, selling prints, jewelry, art, fashion, toys, gizmos, and all manner of decorative doodads. A food truck was parked on 26th Street, selling fancy grilled cheese sandwiches, as neighbors bumped into each other outside, catching up-and probably discussing the day’s haul from the nearby farmer’s market.
This was Baltimore, alive and fun and quirky. I’d found Charm City a couple miles north of the Inner Harbor.
I wasn’t staying there either. I’d found a hotel built on the site of a brewery in what real estate people and Baltimore boosters are calling Harbor East, a little east of the National Aquarium and a little west of Fells Point, the historic district that’s one of the city’s busy nightlife districts. The Fairfield Inn & Suites Downtown caught me eye for more than just the free wifi, free breakfast and free bikes to borrow: It’s a newly built, LEED-certified hotel that’s embraced the architectural vernacular of its city.
The general manager, Roberta Wittes, explained as she took me on a tour, pointing out the row home that’s been integrated into the building and now serves as a presidential suite. The hotel is built on the site where the original Star Spangled Banner was sewn: Mary Young Pickersgill finished the flag that would fly over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 at 101 President Street, when it was Claggett’s brewery.
While the Fairfield was built to echo the look of an old brewery, Woodberry Kitchen, the city’s hottest restaurant, is set in a foundry built around 1870. The menu lists the farms and fishermen of the Chesapeake Bay region who provide the night’s ingredients, making it as of-the-moment as a restaurant can be, with handsome waiters parading around in plaid button-ups. The night I had dinner, Duff Goldman was sitting at a two-top and got up to say hey to the guys working the wood burning oven.
There are, of course, still problems in Baltimore, starting with blocks and blocks and blocks of abandoned housing that are both symptom and cause of urban decay. With a talented local photographer named Patrick Joust, who happens to have a day job as a research librarian, I toured some of the more depressed corners of the city. An understatement: It’s not all new hotels and fancy restaurants.
But among the boarded up row homes are signs of civic pride, like Roots Fest 2011, an event held in West Baltimore the Sunday after the craft fair. The idea is to reunify a neighborhood that was rent in two by the construction of a highway that’s now been partially abandoned. (Traffic still flows in one direction.) Attendance was light, but that the festival would happen at all is a sign of progress, Patrick said.
I found more good news at Lexington Market, the home of Faidley’s, the restaurant that’s been praised so many times it shouldn’t need to make lump crab cakes that taste this good. But they do. The line still snakes around the space, all the way to the lobster tank, as fish mongers banter in thick Baltimore accents. Who needs the Inner Harbor anyway?