You Don’t Know Baltimore Like I Do

February 18, 2018

The Baltimore seen on The Wire
and Homicide is NOT
The Baltimore of my youth.

The Baltimore seen in 2015
After the death of Freddie Gray
is NOT my Baltimore, either.

Where you see crime and grime
and defeat
in people’s hardened hearts
and in the black eyes
of decrepit, rotting houses
and empty lots,

I carry within my soft heart
The Vivid Memory
of a time
when all those houses
stood tall and proud,
filled with families;
sounds of laughter
and love,
fussin’ and fightin’,
and smells of food cooking—
spilling and wafting
from open doors and windows.

Plenty of corner stores
selling fresh food and produce,
where the owners
kept your family’s credit
in big, hand-written ledgers.

That store at Monroe and Mosher Streets
with the neon arrow
used to be Burkom’s Grocery.

They ground the beef fresh for you
at the meat counter
in the back.

Once, when I was little,
I ate maraschino cherries
out of a jar I picked
off the shelf.

Grandma was mad—
she had to buy that jar!
And I never opened another jar
in a store again.

See that empty storefront
at the corner of Fulton and Riggs Avenues,
across from the CME Church?

I remember my daily
after-school stops in that store
with my friends
to buy root beer barrel candy
and baseball cards
and glittery little-girl rings for 5 cents.

And the CME Church
was known then
as the Colored (now, Christian)
Methodist Episcopal Church.

I would head on down Riggs
to my grandma’s house
on Payson Street.

After our homework was done,
we’d meet up outside
and play stepball,
jacks, or marbles.
Or ride up and down the street
on our bikes,
or go skating on our
Union No. 5’s
until we were called in
for dinner.

On summer days,
we eagerly awaited
the Good Humor truck,
or small carnival rides
brought in on the back
of a pickup truck,
or horse rides
provided by A-rabbers.

My aunt or my grandma
would walk us up
to Branch 17 of the Enoch Pratt Free Library
at Pennsylvania & North Avenue
for story hour
and a pile of books
to bring home and read.

Further along Pennsylvania Avenue
was The Avenue,
home to The Royal Theatre,
where so many Black musicians
and comedians came to play.

I used to go with my cousins
to Tommy Tucker’s
to buy handkerchiefs
and “stinky” perfume
as presents for my family
at Christmas time.

[But the ’68 Riots,
after MLK was killed,
destroyed Pennsylvania Avenue.

And the spot where the Royal used to be
Is now commemorated
with a sad little marquee
announcing community events,
and a bronze statue
of Billie Holiday
standing nearby.]

On Sundays,
we sometimes walked,
sometimes rode
up Lafayette Avenue
to church.
So many of the houses
up near Carey Street
had gleaming brass
handrails alongside
their clean white marble steps.

Over on Bloom Street,
at my great-grandparents’ house,
I’d hum “Here Comes the Bride,”
as the nuns from St. Peter Claver’s
walked two-by-two
down the street.

My first home,
The Carver Apartments
on Division Street,
is now another
burnt-out shell,
even though
it was on the National Historic Registry!

Before it became my first home,
it served as a Catholic orphanage;
yet as an apartment building,
it retained the cavernous
and odd-angled hallways
and a courtyard
in its midst.

The careless owner
charged with restoring it
allowed it to burn down,

But in the shell of the building,
I can still see where my mother
would hang out her laundry
on a clothes line strung between
our window and a neighbor’s.

I even remember the time
when my grandfather, my youngest aunt, and I
walked past the house
off Fulton Avenue near Druid Park Lake Drive—
where a memorial to Freddie Gray
now sits—
on our way home
from a carnival
where we got
silly-faced clowns
that danced
from a string
on a stick
and melting ice cream
running down our arms.

So, don’t try to tell me
how broken Baltimore is.

Because I remember
when it wasn’t.

6 thoughts on “You Don’t Know Baltimore Like I Do

  1. I know full well that Baltimore was never perfect. Nor was my childhood idyllic. But the Baltimore of today is just a shell of what it once was. And what it once was deserves to be remembered….


  2. Ideal remembrances of Baltimore in its former state of existence of which I too, recall living. I remember growing from childhood several blocks north of the Royal Theater, and going to a little confectionery store which sold 3 cent coddies on saltines, the long slices of kosher and onion pickles retrieved from huge jars positioned on the counter. I recall the Rainbow Grill lunch room which had the reddish polish hot dogs grilled right before eyes at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Bloom Street. Incidently, “Rainbow” was the original name given the Lenox Theater. Bloom Street was a favorite hilly incline for riding your sled after a big snowfall, which brought about much fun and unfortunately, a few near mishaps such as the one which gives me chills every time I think about it. A friend told of the time he sledded down Bloom Street and barely missed the wheels of a truck rolling over his head. Otherwise, these are just a few of honest to goodness fun. Not to mention a ferris wheel sat up periodically in the 500 block of Baker Street.


  3. Love it Jackie…this is also the Baltimore I remember. When everyone took pride in their neighborhood and looked out for each other. Glad for the memories.


  4. This is fabulous Jackie. I remember this Baltimore as well. My Uncle lived on Payson St and those homes were once so beautiful. Thanks so much for you detailed and articulate memories. Love you girl.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s