On Baltimore and Book Launches

On Baltimore and Book Launches

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Yes, it happened, and I am delighted and humbled. Echoes of the Alum Chine, officially launched in the city of its setting, if not the period. Baltimore in the early 20th Century. Not a time without problems, without societal ills, to be sure, yet a time that I view through a sepia lens.

Aware of that as I drove through the neighborhoods cited in the book – Hollins Street, Union Square – well past its prime, though struggling to maintain some semblance of urban pioneer moments. I read that the local market and adjacent properties had been bought by a relative of Under Armour’s CEO, but, to my untrained eye, I could see no evidence to transformation – yet, at least.

And I ponder my reaction to any such transformation – when I big spender comes in to “revitalize” an area – to my mind, significantly different than the grass roots struggles of individuals who come to save a neighborhood from a sense of loyalty and love, rather than as an investment. I was part of such a merry band many years ago, when the area of Seton Hill began to take shape. A labor of love and money, to be sure – and I am hoping for a resurgence for this lovely area of alley houses.

And now, back to me!  It was such an enchantment to read passages of both Echoes from the Alum Chine and Another Sunday to groups who understood the historical context, who understood exactly what it meant when Celeste, the heroine of Another Sunday, ends her days at the Congress Hotel, a Baltimore landmark that at one time signified the height of sophistication and prosperity, but, by the time Celeste lived there, had devolved into what could only be called a flea-bag hotel for transients. I felt their tears and sadness for her. And they came right along with me as I recounted her 1967 cab ride through Mt. Vernon Place, North Avenue, Baltimore Cemetery and Green Mount Cemetery, with a final stop at Stewart’s Department Store at Howard and Lexington Streets. A visit remembering what had been, and the sadness of facing what was and is.

Going back to Baltimore always fills me with mixed emotions – I love seeing old friends, this time from high school and from my Roland Park days. But I am always struck by a sense of sadness, for the tone of the city has changed, so many of the landmarks that were and remain meaningful to me derelict and forgotten. I’m not so impressed with the tarted-up, pseudo-chic, multi-million-dollar condos that have replaced those earthy, drunken sailors on Pratt Street.

I know I’m in the minority – it doesn’t bother me. Someone asked me if I remembered the movie Avalon. I sure do – and salute Barry Levinson – another Baltimorean who remembers the substance of Baltimore. I think there are a lot of us out there.

http://www.cynthiastrauff.com

 

On Another Sunday in Baltimore

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On Another Sunday in Baltimore

I was in Baltimore this past weekend to launch Another Sunday there. It was an extraordinary experience for me. First, that this book is really here; second, that people actually want to read it. And then being back in the city where Another Sunday takes place, albeit the Baltimore of the early 20th Century, was intensely emotional.

We stayed at the Johns Hopkins Mt. Washington Conference Center, which just happens to be the site of a major scene in the book, The Mt. Washington Country School for Boys. The Octagon Building, a pivotal location, is now lovingly restored to its former glory. Thank you, Johns Hopkins University, for that. How poignant to actually enter its foyer, to see where little boys, dressed in their military school uniforms, learned Greek and Latin and the history and geography of a century past.

The launch was held at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, for streetcars play a major part throughout the book. The volunteers there could not have been more helpful, nor more enthusiastic, and all who attended, in addition to the “pleasure” of hearing me read, were treated to a ride on a 1900 streetcar. The actual streetcar, not a replica.

This journey back to Baltimore was also filled with sadness, as we visited streets and neighborhoods that are featured so prominently throughout the book, and which have not fared as well as the beautifully and lovingly restored Octagon Building. Time and circumstances have not been good to North Avenue, the Baltimore Cemetery, St. Paul Street, Maryland Avenue. Those areas, indeed Baltimore itself, have as central a role as do the human characters. And, like the protagonist Celeste, who starts the 20th Century with hopes and dreams and assurances, and who finds life’s challenges sometimes unwinnable, so too does Baltimore, the real Baltimore, not the ersatz posturing of million-dollar harbor-view condominiums and restaurants featuring hundred-dollar plates of spaghetti.

And I realize that for my Baltimore, its time is past. Jobs have vanished, thousands upon thousands of vacant and derelict houses remain, hidden to the visitor’s eye behind the harbor’s Potemkin façade. It is almost impossible not to despair. My Baltimore is gone.

I write of a time in the early 20th Century, a time when the city thought it faced a bright future. For me, it’s better that way.

 

Another Sunday, www. cynthiastrauff.com