Charles Street: Thoughts on Urban Duality

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Baltimore Fishbowl intern Moses Hubbard, Mt. St. Joe ’11, wrote the following essay as part of his high school senior project. Moses and friends collaborated on “a multimedia artistic rendering of Baltimore,” ultimately completing a short movie with music. Moses’s writing served as the film’s poetic narration. “We felt a weird sort of pull from the city, like gravity, that none of us could ignore,” he says. Moses is a rising sophomore at Fordham University. 

Charles Street begins undramatically. It sprouts out where I-95 runs through the south side of Federal Hill, after a stretch of water and some train tracks, between two gutted warehouses. This first block is more parking lot than road, and a few abandoned cars can usually be found parked at haphazard angles along the street or in the grass beside it. It’s a humble origin for what becomes one of Baltimore’s most dynamic and important streets.

As you move north up South Charles, closer to downtown Baltimore, the restaurants start to get more expensive and the shops closer together. You see more people on the streets, and at night the commuters switch out to men in jackets and women heavy with silk and jewelry. At West Baltimore Street, South Charles turns into North Charles, and the restaurants get even smaller and more tasteful.

But you could say the same about almost every north-south running street in Baltimore. Charles Street is different. While most streets are like parabolas – getting nicer and nicer until peaking in the downtown, then gradually receding back into quieter residential neighborhoods – Charles is like a constantly upward-sloping line.  If anything, Charles only gets nicer as it moves north of downtown.

A couple blocks past the heart of downtown is the Washington Monument, a giant white tower that sticks up several stories over even the tallest adjacent structures. Officially, the monument is considered a museum, because you can walk in and climb a giant spiral staircase for a view from the top, but its hours are so haphazard you’d have about as much luck getting in as winning the lottery.

Four green spaces extend out from the center of the monument along the cardinal directions. Collectively they’re known as Mt. Vernon Square Park, but each space has its own distinctive feel.  There’s a tulip garden in one, and fountains with statues of young girls in the south and west parks. At night, floodlights are turned on under the monument, and it transforms into a warm, bright beacon, like a sunbeam jabbed into the heart of the dark city. Around Christmastime, huge strings of lights are draped from the top of the monument and crowds gather to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols and watch fireworks rocket up from the park.

The area is infused with the same strange urban duality that runs through all of Baltimore (even the Inner Harbor).  Once while I was with friends filming from the East park, a group of hobos sat on benches and watched the joggers and street musicians. Cars pumping rap zoomed along down cobblestone streets lined with the Victorians of the old Baltimore gentry. No matter where you go in the city, it’s impossible to forget that you’re in Baltimore. There’s a certain subtle emotion that runs through all of Baltimore, a note so constant and elemental that you often forget it’s there at all. This “it” is not as simple as “nice” and “ugly” or “positive” and “negative” – “it” just exists, in Baltimore and nowhere else.

A few blocks north of the monument is my favorite part of the whole street.  While not the most expensive stretch of Charles, it’s definitely the trendiest and most exciting.  One of the staples of the area is the Charles Theater, an avant-garde film house that’s always showing foreign and indie flicks for pretty affordable prices.  On one side of the Charles (there’s a doorway from the theater’s interior that you can step through) is Tapas Teatro.  The place is crammed as hell but the food[1] makes it all worth it.  On the other side is Sophie’s Crepes, which is exactly what it sounds like – a little hole-in-the-wall that sells very good and very cheap crepes.

A block down from there is the Hexagon. The underground venue can’t be more than 500 square feet, but it has hosted some of the best alternative acts Baltimore has to offer – Moss of Aura, Double Dagger, Height with Friends, and Weekends, to name just a few.  There’s an alleyway behind the Hexagon that people pile out to between acts, to sit and socialize and try to breathe clean air.  The street outside the Charles and Hexagon, all the way down to where North Charles runs into West North Avenue, is made of “glassphalt.” Shards of glass are churned into the asphalt, so the street is always glimmering and flickering when it catches with light, and when it’s dark cars are announced by the shimmer from their headlights.

This part of Charles Street is only a couple blocks away from MICA, one of the best and most famous art colleges in the nation.  It’s no surprise, then, that it plays a major role in the vibrant art community in Baltimore.  For three days in the summer, Charles street is closed to cars from East Biddle to West North and lined with (usually free) art installations, musicians, and food vendors.  They have bicycles rigged up to blenders, so you can make your own smoothie, and giant games of human foosball.   This three-day art festival, called Artscape, is considered America’s largest and best free arts festival.

For a long time (up until the day we started filming, actually), I mistakenly called this area Charles Village.  While Charles Street does run through it, the heart of the street, containing the museums and monuments and venues and theaters that I’ve come to love so much, is technically Mount Vernon, a neighborhood south of the village.

As the sun began to set on Baltimore, we bought crepes from Sophie’s and walked across the street to the garage where we were parked.  There’s a space on top of he garage where no cars park, and you can sit and look out over much of Northern Baltimore – the multicolored Howard St. Bridge, the skyscrapers of downtown, and Penn Station. Pat brought his guitar and played while the rest of us ate and filmed. A train passed through Penn station and the sun gradually set.

Baltimore looks different from above. It’s quieter, and there seems to be an order to things that isn’t perceptible from the streets. Where we were sitting is just behind the “Where Baltimore gets engaged” sign [2], and at about the same height. We shared memories of driving by it as children, and talked about how strange it felt to look at everything as we did now.


[1] Think Rock Octopus, monkfish medallions and house sangria.

[2] Probably the most famous billboard in Baltimore.  It’s the Natty Boh man handing the Utz girl a diamond.



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2 COMMENTS

  1. HEY MOSES, I ENJOYED YET ANOTHER ARTICLE OF YOURS, I THINK I MISLEAD YOU ABOUT ARTSCAPE, I BELIEVE IT IS STILL ON FOR FRIDAY 20TH-22, 12, FRIDAY THRU SUNDAY, THE STREETS CLOSING ARE FOR ARTSCAPE, NOT THE WATER-MAIN BREAK, SORRY IF I TOLD YOU WRONG, I’VE SEEN TONS OF TENTS BEING SET UP ETC. SO ARTSCAPE IS PROBABLY STILL ON. YOU COULD ALSO ASK AROUND THE AREA , A STORE OR SOMETHING, TO FIND OUT FOR SURE, THANKS FOR YOUR GREAT WRITING & EXPERTISE KNOWLEDGE OF THE AREA, I’VE LONGED TO LEARN MORE SINCE I’VE JUST MOVED HERE RECENTLY & FILL LIKE I NEED TO GET TO KNOW BALTIMORE MORE, IT IS A GREAT CITY, WITH GREAT PEOPLE IN IT TO, LIKE YOU, GOOD-LUCK ON ALL YOUR FUTURE WRITINGS, AS YOU DO AN AWESOME JOB. PEACE.!!!

  2. Charles St. is Baltimore’s longest north-south street; North Ave. is its longest east-west street. Where they intersect is almost the precise geographic center of Baltimore, and home of Station North Arts District.

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