Loving, But Leaving, Baltimore

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chas str restored frat house

When I tell people that Jill and I are selling the house — our former infamously ruined frat house that we’ve spent 15 years restoring, the house whose transformation was featured in This Old House magazine, where the story went viral, the house that now has its own website (houselove.org) and a national following of DIYers and lovers of Victorian architecture — they are benumbed with disbelief. “You can’t sell your house!” some tell us, as if selling it were a betrayal of our dream or, worse, an admission of defeat. Have we given up on Baltimore? Have the recent riots chased us away?

Chas St restored frat house

Jill and I loved Baltimore from the start. Seventeen years ago, when we took our first trip to New York City together, we proudly proclaimed that we were from Baltimore and were delighted by the invariable response: “Oh, Baltimore, yeah, a cool place.” Baltimore was so tough, edgy, and arty, you could not be a wimp if you were from here. No way. It was a broad-shouldered, B-grade, rustbelt city that, if not off the beaten track, was easy to overlook . . . until you stopped for a visit. Then you saw that, wow, there was plenty happening here. A small place with a smattering of Southern charm and Southern ease (and magnolias everywhere!), a remarkable number of crab houses (Did every neighborhood have one?), lots of local theater, all of those cool old rowhouses shoved together on narrow streets, horse-drawn produce wagons like something from the 1890s, a snowcone stand every few blocks (What’s with that?), locals wagging their fingers at curbsides for hacks, and everywhere you go that welcome stink of backbay wetlands. Jill, originally from Detroit, was impressed by Baltimore’s checkerboard-like neighborhoods—an urban pattern which compels people of different economic and racial backgrounds to interact and work with each other continuously. Urban blight? Sure, plenty. Crime? Sure, plenty. But, WTF, it’s a city. If you want safe and pretty and clean, go the burbs. And die of boredom.

Chas St restored frat house

The one thing we did not want was the burbs. So we bought a ruined former frat house in Charles Village — a building so abused that everybody had given up on it. Kind of the way so many people had given up on the city whose reputation rode in the muddy wake of David Simon’s The Wire. At its best, The Wire showed how complicated Baltimore was, its misguided politics and policies forever tainted by intractable historical forces. At its worst, however, the TV series was a cartoonish reduction, little better than a Shirley Temple offered instead of bourbon. This reduction became the choice representation whenever non-Baltimoreans heard the word “Baltimore.” When I traveled, whether across the country or overseas, the responses I heard from others were Pavlovian in their predictability: I’d say, “Baltimore,” and they’d widen their eyes and blurt, “The WIRE!”  Then they’d shake their heads in pity.

The response was, and remains, irritating but what are you gonna do? People love their stereotypes. Maybe it comes down to schadenfreude. Outsiders relish the notion that we Baltimoreans live in fear and squalor. If we insist that we don’t, if we assert that the sun shines 213 days a year in Baltimore, they won’t believe us. Similarly, when I tell people that Jill and I are leaving Baltimore to live on a farm 40 miles away, most won’t believe it has nothing to do with our love of Baltimore. Many will be convinced our move is in reaction to the recent unrest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. Never mind that this city is famously riotous. That’s why it was dubbed “Mob Town” long ago. The first riot of note was in 1813 in protest against our involvement in the War of 1812. Baltimoreans showed then, as they show now, that they won’t shut down and they won’t shut up when they think something is wrong.  So let me say this carefully: while the unrest, particularly the Penn North riots, were most unfortunate and certainly damaging, they weren’t out of character for Baltimore. Nor were they for no good reason. Nor did they faze Jill and me for a minute.

So, although it may look to many like we are abandoning our beloved Baltimore, we are instead moving on to a new adventure. We are diehard DIYers, savers of old things that need saving — we have an almost pathological love of a good construction project. By sheer chance, we recently found an abandoned old farm and were immediately determined to save it. Unfortunately, it was already slated for demolition (to become industrial land) and we were unable to talk the owners into giving up their “development” plan.  So we scoured the surrounding counties in search of another dream farm, and have been awed by the remarkable number of farmsteads. Then we found what we we’ve been looking for: a derelict Victorian farm lying in near ruin.  We want not only to save it, but to make it glorious. We want to celebrate what it once was and what it should still be. In our search, we discovered how much of rural Maryland has been bought up by corporations and development companies for subdivisions, strip malls and industrial parks.

The good news is that Maryland has very aggressive conservation laws. That means that if you’re trying to sell off the family farm, you get to sell off only a portion of it for “development” (i.e., strip malls and McMansions). In exchange, you must put the remainder into conservancy. Conservancy means that the land can never be subdivided or developed in any way except for agriculture. In short, it must stay farm land. Or wild land. That’s what we’re getting: 56 acres of conserved land. Our plan is to keep it a farm (leasing the tilled land to a nearby farmer, since we don’t know the first thing about farming) and dedicate the remaining land to gardens and wildlands, all of which will be a bird sanctuary. We’re thinking about our retirement too, which is looming, so we also have lots of dreams about the farm: A writers’ retreat?  An events space? Organic garden? Chickens?

So, yes, we’re selling our grand, Baltimore townhouse — the house that friends and neighbors thought we would never leave — and we’re taking on another near-ruin because that’s what makes us feel most alive, striving after the seemingly impossible and, at the same time, trying to save some of America’s heritage. But we will continue to love Baltimore, (and spend lots of time here, as we work here and have dear friends here) even though we will no longer be Baltimoreans. Through our politics and our work, we will continue to support Baltimore as fervently as ever. And, when meeting our rural neighbors, we will encourage a more expansive view of this city as we speak proudly and fondly of Baltimore’s true grit, its rich culture, its bold and beautiful citizens.

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  1. Gary, Indiana has beautiful lakefront homes and is unlivable.Trenton, NJ has plenty of jobs associated with be the state capital but is unlivable, similarly Harrisburg. You are leaving Baltimore because it is unlivable, 18,000 vacant homes, virtually no grocery stores, potholed streets, corruption, trash, empty museums, never ending violence, over the top insurance premiums and now a level of danger that make life too stressful to endure. You are human in a city that has become inhuman.

    • We are doing the same thing as you restoring a beautiful townhouse in Mount Vernon to apartments that people will be proud to call home. Our project has also been a labor of love and it’s visible here http:www.1208stpaul.com As for Baltimore never has a city been so underestimated and misunderstood.
      The same happened to Brooklyn, NY 10 years ago, now people are saying why didn’t I get into Brooklyn then.

    • Kurt J: It’s unlivable? Yeah, I guess that’s why I’ve been murdered three times in the past week alone. Of course, with “virtually no grocery stores” I couldn’t have survived anyway. I don’t know how I’ve lasted here 33 years. Oh, yeah, and with the “empty” BMA just a few blocks from my house, it’s been a cultural wasteland. Yep, sure am glad I’m dead!

  2. Ron and Jill – thank you for sharing what you love about Baltimore. It is a lovely and authentic essay. I don’t recognize the Baltimore the reader above is referring to, but maybe he’s confusing The Wire with real life?

  3. Thank you for the love letter to Baltimore. My husband and I restored an old church in Baltimore and continue to fight the good fight here. But you left out the punchline: how much for your house?

  4. Thank you for clarifying your reason behind leaving our beloved yet weary city. My family and I moved to the county last summer for many reasons but not due to a lack of passion for Baltimore. Cannot wait to see that new farm house renovation in action….

  5. OK Ron. I thought you were nuts before, but this confirms it. I built a house. Now I know how to build one and I will never do it again. So instead a I wrote a book. I guess I’m nuts, too.

  6. Congratulations on your next project! We lived across 28th Street from you for six years, and it was a regular vicarious thrill for us, watching you bring that house back from the dead, making improvements that, as renters, we could only dream about. One of my favorite memories of my time in Charles Village. Best of luck on your new adventure!

  7. Ron, no, say it ain’t so!

    Sorry I’m so late to the party. And I wish you and Jill the best, best, best in all things. I’m sure the renovation you do at your new digs will be just as sensitive and glorious as what you did at your house in Charles Village. I hope you’ll keep me on your mailing list and let me know of your adventures. You have been a wonderful, inspiring presence in the neighborhood.

  8. Best of luck with the new place; I hope the Baltimore place finds a steward who appreciates what you’ve done. Your web site has been a great inspiration for several years. When I dispair of ever completing our own restoration, I pull up your site to remind myself that there is an end to the process and that it’s worth the effort.

  9. Keep on promoting yourselves. You just can’t stop. GET OVER YOURSELVES. You haven’t been involved with CH V for ages and ages.

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