From Zappa to The Wire, Baltimore Emerges As A Green City

Baltimore burns its gritty bra and embraces an eco-revolution.

The gut reaction to hearing that Baltimore’s tourism nickname is “charm city,” for many is “Really, hon?” Charming isn’t necessarily the first adjective used to describe the gritty hometown of Jada Pinkett Smith, Frank Zappa, the Orioles, and the Ravens.

Popular culture certainly has inspired some intrigue though. Credit goes to director John Waters and HBO’s “The Wire” for putting Baltimore on the quirky and fascinating map for me. Waters’ movies showed the oddball charm of the city’s “hon” happy inhabitants. “The Wire” contributed five seasons of deep story lines, featuring well-painted portraits of very real characters. Those characters forced us fans to look differently and more openly at urban, blue-collar cities, and see back-stories vs. weathered and cracked out anonymous faces.

After reading about how eco-revolutionized the Maryland city had developed into, I decided to come down to check out just how charming Baltimore had become for myself.

Never a fan of traveling by Megabus, or, any long distance bus in the United States, I took the Amtrak from New York’s Penn Station down to Baltimore’s Penn. From the train station I transferred onto the Charm City Circulator, the free and green hybrid bus shuttle, and made my way to the Baltimore Harbor. The Inner Harbor has transformed over the last decade. Now it’s shiny and new with a revamped glittering skyline.

Amongst all the development are green spots like the Inn at the Black Olive, a LEED Platinum building replete with gourmet market and green roof/herb garden restaurant. The hotel is credited as being one of the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly buildings in the world, with geothermal, photovoltaic and thermal solar, radiant heated floors, natural clay and limestone coatings, aerated autoclaved concrete, among other impressive innovations.

The eco love extends to the shopper with charming boutiques in the (sort of nearby) Hampden neighborhood. Earth Alley sells clothes crafted from recycled materials, garden sculptures made from old oil drums, and bowls made from telephone wires. Ma Petite Shoe carries an array of sustainable shoes like the ones made from repurposed tires.

Woodberry Kitchen, the popular, seasonal farm-to-table restaurant is quite possibly one the top restaurants I’ve eaten at anywhere in the world. A bit of a confusing drive from the Inner Harbor even with GPS, it’s best to take the light rail (another green transportation option). Dishes like the black rock peaches with cucumber, fennel radish, and quark, the Tilghman Island crab cakes and the 42-day, dry-aged liberty delight strip steak were epically epicurean. Dessert was beyond decadent with a raw rhubarb pie, and homemade ice creams with cool flavors like red-hot and basil. The mixologists behind-the-bar are fine artists. I had a Manhampden, a Maryland-style rye, with California sweet vermouth, old-fashioned bitters, Peychaud’s, and an orange twist that was so smooth; I ended up invincibly following that with a Sazerac. Everything was remarkable down to the coffee. I never drink coffee at night, but the waiter insisted. Those three little sips I took were so clean and not bitter, that my dedications for Manhattan’s Roasting Plant and Ninth Street Espresso cups of coffee maybe have been challenged.

If you bike, it’s easy to stay fit in Baltimore. The 3.2-mile Baltimore Heritage Walk is way more fun on wheels than simply hoofing it.  There are bike lanes all over the city and this particular trail is convenient—it connects the Inner Harbor, Little Italy, Jonestown and City Center neighborhoods, linking historic sites and museums. Rent with: Light Street Cycles.

And if there is but one museum of the almost two-dozen museums in Baltimore to devour, it is the American Visionary Art Museum, a cultural institution that absolutely can’t be missed. It featured one of the most creative and charming collections I’ve seen in a while. Labor Day marks the last weekend of the fantastic “What Makes Us Smile?” exhibit curated by “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and “Pee Wee Herman’s Playhouse” artist, Gary Panter. Never have I been so thoroughly dazzled by every facet of a museum’s exhibit. Dubbed “the only museum in the country dedicated to works by untrained artists,” the said artists created fantastic displays like those in the “Toot Suite” a room that deconstructs the fart, with a collection of works by “fartistes.” There’s also an Alfred E. Neuman bedroom installation that gives tribute to Mad magazine, hilarious drawings by John Callahan, a quadriplegic humorist, and artist Gloria Garrett’s lipstick and eye shadow –painted pictures, among other seriously delightful gems.

Of course charm and appreciation can be fleeting. Baltimore is one of those towns that follows the one block is gentrified, fancy and clean, where the next is absolutely not rule. GPS was invented for cities like Baltimore. A wrong turn can result in witnessing a real life, in-person episode of “The Wire.”