My Mysterious Playground

As a child, my city neighborhood was a mysterious playground full of shadowy, beckoning adventures. “The Holler” with its monkey vine infested woods and minnow stream, the small dark, woody spur of Leakin Park, inhabited no doubt by child-stealers, and, of course, the prerequisite witch who lived at the end of the block.

The mystery, however, was not confined to my neighborhood alone. Given the freedom to ride streetcars and explore the city, the mystery of Baltimore’s many neighborhoods, each unique, spread out before me to be discovered. “The Avenue” – Pennsylvania Avenue – imagine the delights (and trepidations) available to a white boy exploring this world-renown Baltimore neighborhood of Black culture. The crowded wharves of Fells Point, the melon-boats, unloading produce, even peanuts, from the Eastern Shore and points south, the banana boats from South America, passenger packets too, heading to exotic ports, the foot of Fleet, full of boats carrying spices, coffee beans, and teas from around the world, just across the harbor from the sugar factory unloading sugar cane from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

There were, and still are, the city’s many public markets brimming with everything from okra to she-crabs to rockfish. I can still taste Utz’s potato chips, purchased hot, fresh from the stall at Lexington Market, or codfish cakes, smothered in mustard, resting between two saltine squares. Fresh roasted, hot peanuts from Mr. Peanut and Corned Beef Row just around the corner from the city’s infamous Block with its burlesque and strip joints; façades lined with enough tawdry scintillation to corrupt any red-blooded boy. Giggling boys trying to sneak peeks Baltimore’s latest burlesque queen, Blaze Starr, at the Two O’Clock Club, while juice from sauerkraut-laden corned beef resting between two slices of dark, Jewish rye, accompanied by a large, juicy, whole kosher pickle (all from Attman’s Deli) ran out the corners of our mouths.

Mount Vernon Place with Baltimore’s own Washington Monument – 228 steps to be climbed, wondering with each step climbed if Robert Mills, the architect for the monument, was a relative. Museums to be scoped out, church spires, chiming bells, Orthodox onion domes, Polish and Greek shops along Broadway (our family tailor included), Orthodox Jewish Park Heights (home to my non-Jewish paternal grandparents), Little Italy, Liberty Heights where my mother shopped at the A & P, Read’s Drugstore, Woolworth’s, Arundel Ice Cream, and the Liberty Theater, were all my playground— a colophon of sounds and smells and ethnic delights in every corner. Enough mystery – enough adventure – for a lifetime of exploration.

Although my memory of those years long ago may be a bit suspect, there is no question that what made those neighborhoods live live and loud in the mind of a young boy, was that they had a sense of place mingled with mystery; each different, yet each the same. It is this sort of sense of place that that has set me upon the road of seeking out the sense of place, the sense of mystery, in the neighborhoods of today. Yet as I do, I wonder, however, why some neighborhoods, no matter how hard they try, are unable to generate a sense of place, and why it is that others, once brimming with that sense of place and mystery, no longer do so? What is sense of place? Can it be created by place making, or is something else required?

Not too long ago the comic strip Non Sequitur started with, “The greatest adventures aren’t planned, they arrive unexpectedly.” Alice in Wonderland exclaims, “A path suddenly shakes itself and goes a different way.” Cannot – should not – a neighborhood do the same? Should not the same be said for our neighborhoods? Is this not what a true neighborhood sense does best, sets us off on unexpected – unplanned for – adventures? Might we not ask, if there are no neighborhood adventures waiting to unfold, is there still a neighborhood?

Monday, September 22, 2008


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