Two Cities, Two Stories

Boston and Baltimore, so alike and yet so different.


Boston's story shares similarities with that of Baltimore.

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Easter Monday in Boston and the city's great marathon is on. But you didn't need me to tell you that. It's all over the national air, the first since the fatal bombing and manhunt that took place last April. The revered former mayor, Thomas Menino, came out to mark the anniversary last week. "You are strong at this broken place," he said. Even without that element, it is the classic Boston Marathon and no other. The greatest since, well, the ancient Greek runner who dropped dead after giving the message to the king.

Ever since a silversmith in the North End made a famed midnight ride, Boston's always the standout city, the A-plus student, adept at making its story the national story. I say this as a confirmed city girl who knows her way around Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Baltimore. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I once got mugged on a rainy Easter Monday. It didn't even make the paper. Baltimore is the arch-opposite of Boston. When it does capture the national imagination, it's in a Dickensian way. You know what I mean, David Simon? The city won't live "The Wire" down for a long time to come. Not that it wasn't brilliant, David (who covered the police for the paper).

Back to Boston's school spirit. Clearly, it has more than its share of schools and universities, giving it the feel of a big campus. The historical Freedom Trail is something Bostonians are justly proud of. The John Hancock tower stands as tall as his autograph on the skyline. And they love to tell you about old John Harvard. This is all genuine pride of place. If it comes across as bragging, remind yourself this is oral history at work.

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Don't even get Bostonians started on the jewel of Fenway Park - Pahk - unless you have time to kill. The vintage baseball park, one century old, still has neo-retro lettering and its fabled Green Monster. Ted Williams yet lives. I know, I know because the Sun sent me to write a summer story about its preservation. A Baltimore woman, Janet Marie Smith, was working on the project. So I spent from morning to midnight in Fenway. In the end, a suspenseful game went the Red Sox's way. The pursuit of happiness was complete that summer night. Storybook.

Think about it: the Big Dig was a national news story for a couple years. The costliest public works project exemplifies the city's political savvy at getting a princely sum of federal funds - don't ask how much. Equally, the phrase entered into the lexicon, the public well of words. I don't know how they do it, those Bostonians. They make their story our story. And you know what? It is a small city, compared to Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. Boston is even smaller than Baltimore. Hate to say it, but it's less demographically diverse, too. Baltimore was second only to New York as a destination for Ellis Island immigrants a century ago. Nancy Pelosi's father, a resident of Little Italy, was the mayor of Baltimore. "Little Nancy" was once the apple of the city's eye. Both cities have a lot of Catholics and an archbishop, but guess what? The first American Catholic cathedral was built in Baltimore, circa 1820.

When it comes to civic self-esteem, Chicago is the only city in the same ballpark as Boston, with a shared sense of story, starting with the Wigwam and then the shattering event of 1871 (let's not go there today).

[Read blogger Leslie Marshall on the Boston Marathon bombing's lingering questions.]

With my reporter's notebook in hand, I observed Martin O'Malley, then mayor, try to infuse Baltimore with fighting civic spirit. He lighted church spires at night. He held a contest about the colors of the Howard Street Bridge. He went to neighborhood vigils when something really wrong went down. And he led the charge in re-enacting the victorious Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry. That was the 1814 British bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen lyrics that later became the national anthem. Key, an upper-crust lawyer, wrote the verses in a frenzy the very next day: ending with "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!" The War of 1812 pretty much ended, save for Andrew Jackson's skirmish in New Orleans.

My point is: you can be sure that if Boston's harbor was bombarded in a battle that saved the day, we'd all know it happened in Boston, just as we all know about the Tea Party and the Revolutionary shot heard round the world. But few seem to know the provenance of the national anthem. Similarly, if there was a Boston seamstress named Mary Pickersgill who produced the Star Spangled Banner in six weeks (with an army of women and girls), we'd all know her name and fame. But Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill gets no love beyond the city walls. The working widow's house, however, is open to the public. Pickersgill lived on East Pratt Street, not far from the Fells Point waterfront, where the young Frederick Douglass worked as a ship caulker. He was still enslaved but made his escape soon after, by taking the train north toward Philadelphia in a sailor's uniform.

Within the city walls, Baltimoreans – which hardly has the ring of "Bostonians" – have a sense of story, tied to their surroundings. Those who dwell in Federal Hill know all things Federal Hill, Charles Village regulars know their turf, and so on. Camden Yards, where the Orioles play ball, is one charming civic space that brings the city together. City hall stands tall and handsome. The harbor acts as the city's living room, mainly used by guests.

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On the job, I felt the city was made up of watertight compartments, each unto its own community, institution or police district. Lacrosse is on a lofty plane. Sure, I found citizens who knew the whole of which they were a part. Several were at the Sun. Master obituary writers know the various arcs of life in Baltimore cold. But outside the building on Calvert Street, the whole felt like less than the sums of the parts, as an editor told me.

East and West Baltimore felt far apart; denizens stay close to their rowhouses' marble steps. One explanation for this may be segregation within living memory. It still feels slow. Growing up Jewish in a WASP enclave in Baltimore was not exactly fun either, as the late poet Adrienne Rich could attest. It's no accident Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case that struck down segregation, grew up in West Baltimore. And aptly, he attended Frederick Douglass High School.

Now there's story for you, albeit in Southern black and white. Baltimore has not dressed itself up for a ride. In its own orbit, the city doesn't care much what neighbors – like highfalutin' Boston and Washington – think of it. If they think about about Baltimore at all. Eccentrics flourish there, and I mean that as a compliment. John Waters, who lived in a villa down the road, came to community meetings. Really, you have never seen so many community meetings in your life.

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Finally, Boston's rich literary vein has vastly promoted the city's character. It's not just that Paul Revere took that midnight ride, but also that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a practically perfect poem about it, the rhymes recited by schoolchildren for generations. Longfellow lived in an airy Georgian yellow house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, a national historic site, just as you'd expect for a Bostonian patriotic poet. It sings of prosperity.

Baltimore's equivalent literary figure, about the same age, was a bit darker. His name was Edgar Allan Poe and he had a crush on his cousin, a lass whom he wed. He lived in Baltimore for a spell and mysteriously died there, out on the streets in 1849. For a story, I went to visit the tiny ramshackle house where the poet once lived with relatives. It had the narrowest staircase of all time. Nothing romantic about this poverty. The little house was not dressed up and stays an obscure point on the city map, far from where tourists congregate. It's a long way from Brattle Street.

Poe did help out with naming the Baltimore Ravens football team. Alas, he never wrote a poem celebrating the city or its lore. Nevermore.