It's the height of summer right now, so I thought I'd do what Baltimore hopes and prays people do in the summertime: head down to the Inner Harbor and spend some money. The city has been relying on this strategy to save the city from the dire economic fates of the postindustrial wasteland for years, at least since Mayor William Schaefer pushed for the building of the Convention Center in the 1970s. Baltimore has since hung its economic hat on tourism downtown, a terrible answer to a real question: How does the economy of a city move with the punches thrown by capitalism, always moving to the places where there's more profit to be made—cheaper land, loot, and labor? Though it seems to me there's a tendency to romanticize manufacturing and forget about pesky details like racist and sexist hiring practices, unsafe working conditions, and environmental devastation, it's absolutely the case that those were union jobs that paid (some people) enough to live on and kept the city afloat. Those jobs are gone, and they aren't coming back, and now it's a whole lot of bread and circuses. But hey, who doesn't love a circus, right? I had a free afternoon to field trip on down to the heart of Baltimore's hope for the future, and this is what I found.
I zipped downtown on my bicycle on the virtually empty streets that are Baltimore other than rush hour. These afternoon rides always make me feel a bit like I'm rattling around in an empty cage. Where is everybody? At work, I guess? I took the single lane that South Street's down to and rode around the corner construction at Light Street to the bike/pedestrian path and up to one of the few bike racks they've installed down here. The construction slows up traffic, but it's always a good reminder that there will always be some sort of work in this town. Imagine if we decided to fund, say, a real renovation of our sewer and water systems—so many jobs! So much traffic delay, sure, but an end to the water main breaks that we conveniently seem to forget about every summer! Wild fantasies!
Anyway, I locked up my bike and joined the promenade with the other folks who have their afternoons free in the summer: downtown workers on lunch breaks, summer camps, and, yes, a few tourists. Thankfully, Otakon was coming to town, upping the people-watching game considerably (though Artscape is just as good for that sort of thing). There was plenty of foot traffic, but I wondered if it could possibly be enough to sustain the heavy concentration of overpriced attractions and casual dining establishments clogging up the place. Tickets for two adults and one child at Ripley's Believe It Or Not is going to run you over $60. That is so much money. And if you want to go to the aquarium, too? Those same tickets, assuming your kid is under 12, will run you over a hundred bucks. Good lord this place is expensive, especially if somebody's going to want to eat something. I guess it has to be if the money spent at the harbor is supposed to replace so many major industries.
But I had a coupon, as one should if one heads down here. A membership at the aquarium is almost cheaper than a ticket, and Ripley's is selling discount tickets to Maryland residents in July. My coupon was for a ride on the Seadog, ordinarily $21.95 for an adult, but my ride was a comparative bargain at $14. I picked up my ticket and joined the very short line for our 50-minute speedboat tour of the harbor, all I could afford on this Thursday afternoon.
And when I say a short line, I mean a very short line. There were maybe 15 of us on a boat that could seat at least 60. We all had our own rows, mine the second from the front and on the aisle, because of my low interest in getting soaked by harbor water. Oh my god I'm that kind of middle-aged lady. Oh no. OK, anyway, we took a slow ride out toward the Key Bridge. G., our tour guide, did a lot of joking and talking, trying to distract us all from the fact that we'd paid for a speedboat ride and felt like we were sailing. I am quite sure I wasn't alone in wishing he'd just shut up and let us enjoy the gentle breeze and blue skies, but that's his job—to try and endear himself to us and keep us from getting agitated.
I couldn't have been any less agitated, though. Thing is, Baltimore is beautiful in the summertime, and being out on the water, sun on your face, feels so good. G. yammered on about what were seeing, pointing out the Domino Sugars sign, as big as a basketball court, and the Under Armour grounds at Locust Point. He told us about founder Kevin Plank's multi-billion dollar fortune that he's now "investing back in the city." I didn't interrupt to ask just where Plank's fortune came from or to question the assumption that giving us back our money's somehow cause for applause, choosing instead to enjoy the sound of water lapping and the view of birds darting into the water for snacks. It was a truly beautiful day.
And then we were out past the harbor's speed limits and we were off, hitting almost 30 miles per hour, GnR's 'Sweet Child o' Mine' blasting, creating an illusion that we were going much faster than that. I held my arms out and lifted my legs off the floor and closed my eyes and settled into the sensation, and I loved every single second of it. Oh, to be alive in the summertime! And then we slowed back down to head back to the docks where we went our separate ways to our separate eateries—I skipped Hooters for political reasons and ended up at Chik-fil-A, because capitalism makes every choice down here a terrible, delicious one—and settled in with the thought that the ride's totally worth it, but it's a short one. That's a circus for you. •