Place 19 of 52: A Celebration of African-American Culture in Baltimore

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He went on to become a famous orator, publish three books (largely responsible for educating the wider public to the abominations of slavery), edit five newspapers and become the first black man to have a one-on-one meeting with a president (Abraham Lincoln). He’s the only person in Maryland with four statues and two museums dedicated to him, one of which you can visit with Mr. Fields.

But the most interesting part of the tour was seeing a row of houses Douglass bought late in life in the 1890s. Accounts seem to show they were money-losers, but they are built on the same ground as the demolished Methodist church where Douglass found spirituality in his youth; it was the first place he had returned to in Baltimore when slavery ended, 26 years after he had left.

Street Wisdom

The biggest lessons I learned in Charm City, though, all came from people I met by chance. Walking toward Inner Harbor, I heard a beautiful voice singing behind me. Keith Stanford, 28, was 10 days out of prison; he plans to try out for “The Voice” and “American Idol.” He had gotten into gangs, he said, and wanted to set a good example for his son, and even seemed grateful for his stint because it kept him off the streets last year when Baltimore’s murder rate was the highest in the country. “I think everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Another night, I got in a Lyft driven by a woman named Andrea Neal, who I wished I could take with me on this trip for motivational pep talks. I told her how much trouble I was having with the writing part of this job, and she told me that the best thing I could do was surrender control and follow God’s guidance. “Don’t worry about perfection. There is none,” she said. “Let God intervene and create a wonderful masterpiece out of what you’re doing, so you can give him credit. He just wants the credit.”

My last night in town, I wound up in the car of Adrian Smith, another Lyft driver, who spends his days cooking in a nursing home. He was happy about some of the city’s changes, but had issues with a rerouting of bus lines that made it harder for people outside of downtown to get to work. Then he showed me the 14-inch Rambo knife he keeps in his car, and the finger he can’t lift because he cut a ligament throwing a potential robber out the window. “I got to do what I got to do,” he said. “I’m 40 years old. I got two kids and a wife. You want to know what Baltimore is? People like myself that hustle. We’re survivors.” Survivors who carry knives at all times? “Welcome to Baltimore,” he said.

Practical Tips

— I returned my rental car after a day; parking was expensive and I am too much of a wimp for Baltimore driving. Public transportation is as bad as locals say. Walking in the daytime and doing rideshares at night worked out for me. Don’t skip a hike up Federal Hill for beautiful views of the harbor.

A Baltimore visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the American Visionary Art Museum, dedicated to self-taught artists, and encompassing the beating heart of weirdness that gave us the director John Waters, a Baltimore native. Covered in an elaborate mosaic of mirrors, the building has a glittery, twirling, 10-foot-tall sculpture of drag queen Divine, by the British artist Andrew Logan and an impressive Pez dispenser collection featuring three versions of Elvis.

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