My Baltimore neighborhood is a wonderful place to live: It is made possible by the fact it is in a deeply troubled city.

The Awkward Truth About Living the Good Life in Baltimore

The Awkward Truth About Living the Good Life in Baltimore

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 4 2015 11:25 AM

My Baltimore Bargain

My corner of the city is an ideal place to live. But the awkward truth is that it is attainable because it’s in a deeply troubled city.

A tree-lined street in the Baltimore Idyll.
A tree-lined street in the Baltimore Idyll.

Photo by Alec MacGillis

The three fire trucks heaved to a stop right outside our house in Baltimore on Tuesday night, all red and white flashing lights, as firefighters jumped out to unspool their hoses. Our younger son leaped out of bed and screamed: “There’s something wrong!” But there was nothing wrong. It was a false alarm, and the fact that the department had been able to spare three trucks for it was a sign that things had started to quiet down in the city. Curious neighbors stepping onto their porches were left to contemplate a particularly incongruous moment for the Baltimore Idyll.

What is the Baltimore Idyll? It is one of the East Coast’s best-kept secrets, to which my family and I returned two years ago from Washington. It is the swath of a major city within easy reach of Washington and New York where middle- and barely upper-middle-class professionals can live in a style that their counterparts in those cities could never dream of. They can buy grand 19th-century townhouses or gabled Victorians with wraparound porches for the price of a one-bedroom apartment in Park Slope or Dupont Circle. A short drive from their leafy neighborhoods—the Idyll is based in a large contiguous expanse of the northern section of the city, with pockets in the central, southern, and southeastern—they can enjoy superb theater and a top-tier symphony orchestra, at modest prices. They can get into excellent restaurants without a wait, frequent unimpeachably authentic bars, see first-run films in Art Deco splendor, pick up growlers from breweries in old mills, take runs on wooded streambed paths. They can raise their children with less of the high-achiever stress than one finds in more exclusive locales. These are not gentrifiers—the neighborhoods they live in have, for the most part, been desirable addresses from the start. They are not particularly affluent people who are getting to live the way relatively ordinary people could once live in cities that have now gotten fancy.

But there is a catch. The Idyll is so attainable for nonaristocracy because it is located within a deeply troubled city. It requires a relatively healthy local economy for its sustenance. But if Baltimore’s economy were stronger, if its poorer neighborhoods were not so racked by violence and despair, and if the notoriety of that violence and despair did not so shadow the city’s national reputation, the Baltimore Idyll would not be so affordable for the shabbily genteel—it’s as simple as that. The city with one of the most appealing and accessible urban areas in the country is the same city that has some of the country’s most devastated neighborhoods, and this is not entirely a coincidence. It is an awkward truth, and many in the Idyll understandably try not to dwell on it too much. But last week, the Idyll was confronted, in the starkest possible terms, with the full picture of its bargain with the city.

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Not that everyone needed reminding. Reality impinges on the Idyll at every turn, which is, in fact, part of what many of its inhabitants like about it. Police helicopters fly over it at night, heading to the high-crime area in the city’s northwest; the Sun, where I once worked as a reporter, duly reports on the previous night’s homicides. The Idyll is full of social workers, journalists, public defenders—people whose days are spent in the rest of the city. Volunteers and civic activists abound in the Idyll. And casual brushes with reality happen all the time, too, because as segregated as this majority-black city is, it is in fact not as racially and economically divided as many other major cities (in part because it retains a black middle class and a white working class, though both are dwindling). The most convenient Target is at Mondawmin Mall, at the initial locus of last week’s unrest, rather than in the suburbs. Realms collide at Druid Hill Park, the vast, verdant gem in the heart of the city. My son’s baseball team, based in the Idyll, was thrashed by an all-black squad from Northeast Baltimore last year and will soon visit a West Side team not far from Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. His school orchestra gave its holiday concert in profoundly ungentrified Lexington Market downtown. The Idyll itself is heavily but not entirely white. The kindergarten through eighth-grade public school in the heart of the Idyll is diverse. And despite Baltimore’s many private schools, not a few Idyll families send their kids to the city’s magnet high schools.

Still, there is no getting around the appalling disparities. The life expectancy in Roland Park, in North Baltimore, is 20 years longer than in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Never are the disparities more apparent than on the day of the Baltimore Marathon, when hundreds of hyperfit Idyll residents run for miles through the blighted expanse of East Baltimore while being cheered on by locals in less healthy physical condition.

Confronted with these gaps, those in the Idyll can assure themselves that it is still better that they are in the city, disparities and all. And they are right. One of the major differences between Baltimore and, say, Detroit is that the former retains a sizable portion of middle- and upper-middle-class residents paying hefty property taxes to it and still feeling fully invested in the city.

I’ve used that rationalization myself. And I’ve gone a step further to justify my happy existence in the Idyll since returning to it: becoming an ardent booster for the city, trying to spread word of the good life here, bridling at every slight or drive-by flawed portrayal by members of the Acela Corridor media. Sure, improving public perception of the city and spurring demand for the Idyll might raise the price of existence here, but I didn’t care—I had decided the city was pretty wonderful and wanted the world to know.

But of course my depiction of the good life was an incomplete one. And the city needs more than just promotion. I have tried to do my small part in actual uplift over the years, but I must do more. We all must: It’s what the Idyll owes the city for the immensely favorable terms of the deal we’re getting. And if things really do start to get better for the city, for the whole city, so that the Idyll dissolves into a more general prosperity—oh, how we will cheer that loss.

Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, worked at the Baltimore Sun from 2000–2005.