In the late summer of 2002, my boyfriend at the time helped me move by U-Haul truck from Los Angeles to Baltimore, where I was to enroll in the one-year M.A. program in fiction writing at Johns Hopkins within a couple of weeks (at which point he’d again be safely ensconced in our Venice Beach apartment, editing a movie). Tired and overheated, Mike and I stumbled into my small rented clapboard house in Lauraville—which I’d found online but never before laid eyes on—and he fell in a sobbing heap on the Berber carpet.
“How can you live here?” he asked.
In part, Mike was going to miss me during our planned year apart, but I believe a larger piece of him just found the old-looking city and paint-peeling house really, well, unappealing.
Over the next short months, I came to like Baltimore, right down to my rundown little house, which managed to keep itself warm in the icy winter, and provided me the perfect place to write a stack of short stories in quiet, with the exception of my talkative tuxedo cat, Stan.
In the spring of 2003, I collected my master’s degree and accepted a postgraduate fellowship to stay on at Hopkins for another year to write and teach. Somehow, another year turned into another, as will happen in Baltimore—as people here will tell you—and 14 years later, I’ve built a professional writing career, a solid literary community and a family life with my husband (a different Michael) and our two sons, Tex and Miner. For the present, there’s no place else we’d rather be.
Of course, Baltimore boasts a long tradition of luring creatives in search of solitude and cheap digs. Genius abstract painter Grace Hartigan, who became the director of MICA’s Hoffberger School of Painting in 1965 and taught until she was 85 years old in 2007— called her experience in Baltimore her “isolated creative life.” At first, the New York critics harshed on her work done in our Berber-carpeted B-town, but they came around.
To be fair: Our city also has a reputation for being a place where artists go to crash and burn—and drink too much Natty Boh. When writer and former City Paper cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an unapolo- getically funny and hyperbolic love/hate letter to his Baltimore in The New York Times last year, folks in my creative circle were aghast—me included. “[Baltimore] is ideally positioned between New York and Washington so that all the ambitious people are siphoned off—the ones who crave wealth and fame to the north, the ones who lust for power to the south—leaving the lazier, saner remainder in peace to enjoy low rents, cheap beers and a life undisturbed by the clamorous egos of the driven,” Kreider wrote.
Alternatively, I’m convinced that this city, despite the serious unrest and the undeniable poverty, is right now not unlike artistically vibrant Paris in the 1920s—precisely how Hopkins Writing Seminars chair Jean McGarry described our graduate program back in 2002.
So many friends and acquaintances are here from out of state because they feel called to make art, whether it be visual work, literature, theater, high fashion, handmade furniture, critical magazines, blogs, and on and on. And they are doing it—to greater and lesser financial effect. Some keep their day jobs—like transplant Justin Sirois, for example, a MICA grad who works for the Social Security Administration by day, writes award-winning novels by evening—and some, like musician Dan Deacon, who relocated to Baltimore with the Wham City collective a decade back, and is now a world-famous performer, earn a comfortable living.
For me, the quintessential Baltimore transplant will always be poet David Franks, my boyfriend off-and-on during several years soon after my time at Hopkins. Franks, a D.C. native, was a conceptual artist as well as a gifted writer, and he always had a huge scheme up his oxford sleeve. As a young man, he’d intended to become the “National Poet,” a famed and acclaimed super-heroic orator tied to life in his hometown. But life in the capital proved way too expensive, so David moved into a former hair salon in Fells Point and became a Baltimore poet instead. He wrote and conducted music for the tugboats in the Inner Harbor; he performed shockingly honest poetry at live readings, sometimes with a megaphone; and, for me, he reinvented daily life.
I invite you now to meet a group of equally amazing creative people who came to Baltimore from other places for a wide variety of inspired reasons—like Scotland-born Christopher Bedford, the new director of the BMA; like Jana Hunter, whose beloved band, Lower Dens, lives in Waverly but tours the globe; like Linda Franklin, who has spent several decades in Baltimore, collecting visual art and making pretty much every artistic thing a person can physically make. Cheers to our city in all of its rich complexity and growing creativity.
We are all lucky to be surrounded by imaginative people such as these.
We’ll be updating the list periodically. Check back regularly for more incredible artists.
My daughter, Leslie F. Miller, is not a transplant; she’s Baltimore born and bred, and most of her poems are my favorites. But a strong second is David Franks.
Alice Gaines Played the Harp is the most beautiful, the most evocative, the most touching poem. I keep a copy on my computer, reread it often, and treasure the memories it brings back to me. Thanks for the reminder.