16 June 2006

Oh, He's Incarcerated

Question: When does "He's incarcerated" become an appropriate substitute for "He's in jail"?
Answer: When you're staying in the classy part of Baltimore, as, apparently, I am.

Having, over the course of a variegated and not always above-board life, had many occasions to hear someone - myself included - described as being in jail, locked up, banged up, in the hoosegow, in the can, etc., I can say with some certainty that I've never heard anyone referred to as being "incarcerated" except by a social worker, in scholarly texts, or possibly on the Jerry Springer show.

But that's what I heard today on Charles Street, as I passed a couple ladies of dubious provenance having a spirited conversation about the whereabouts of their various sons, husbands, pimps, etc. Not wishing to appear too obvious about my eavesdropping, I didn't get to find out just who was incarcerated, what he had done, or his exact relation to the lady doing the talking, but I felt sure that wherever he was, he'd feel gratified to be described in such dignified terms.

I continued walking south on Charles Street, down to something resembling a harbor and/or a downmarket version of San Francisco's Pier 39. Not much to see there, but they did have a mall-type food court where you could get rice and three vaguely Chinese entrees for $6.25. But before I got to the harbor-ish bit - and after I left it - I had to negotiate quite a few blocks containing little other than office buildings and hotels in the monolithic tradition of architecture and many, many cars. As yesterday, they all seemed in a terrible hurry to get out of town, and this time it wasn't even noon. Pedestrians were thin on the ground. In one six block stretch, I saw two. I was one of them; I'm just counting myself because I was walking past one of those mirrored-glass buildings and got confused for a minute.

I was looking for a place called Federal Hill, which supposedly had a lot of historic, or at least old houses, and I eventually found it, but not before first wandering into something that a sign proclaimed was the "Sharp-Leadenhall Historic Community" but which looked a little more like the Sharp-Leadenhall housing projects-cum-ghetto. After I got home I looked it up and found that the "historic" referred to the fact that it was Baltimore's oldest African-American neighborhood, dating back to at least 1790. A big chunk of it was lopped off when the city fathers drove a freeway through it in the 1970s (instead of running it through the similarly historic Federal Hill and Fells Point districts) and it seems to have been slowly dying ever since. Neighboring Federal Hill, several blocks of early to mid-18th century row houses, fared a little better, and seems to be gradually evolving into one of those cutesy-elite type quadrants that nearly every city older than a hundred years or so has these days.

Historic and picturesque as it may be, it's small, isolated, and a bit sterile and barren. Walk more than a few blocks in any direction and you're back in the post-urban wasteland, a point best illustrated from Federal Hill Park, where apparently 4,000 robust Baltimoreans celebrated the ratification of the Constitution with feasting and drinking in 1788. From it you can look out over the rather nondescript cityscape and "watch Baltimore grow," as one tourist guide put it. Baltimore is growing, I suppose, but in a rather haphazard and aimless fashion, redolent of the "urban renewal" schemes that have resulted in more wreckage than renewal in dozens of American and British cities. Much of the downtown is a hollow shell, half-populated during the day and deserted by night, and neighborhoods seem to change from good to bad depending what side of the street you're on. There are a lot of beggars, homeless people and garbage-pickers, and nobody seems to take much notice, leading me to think it's been this way for a long time.

That being said, I haven't yet been out to explore the main cutesy-trendy neighborhood, which seems to be Mount Vernon, though I walked through it yesterday on the way here. It seemed pleasant and attractive enough, and I'd like to go there now, but unfortunately it looks as though I'll be stuck here on the grimmer side of town for the next several hours, shut up in a hot, smoky bar (yes, sadly, Maryland still allows the cigarette addicts to befoul the air decent people are trying to breathe) while a near-endless parade of pop-punk bands does its best to entertain us. Should be a blast. Seriously.

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