It's widely known that people born in Baltimore have a hard time leaving. But what about people who just got here?
In 2007, some 8,400 out-of-state residents packed up and relocated to Baltimore, according to IRS migration data. They nested in our city's various neighborhoods and acclimated to its colorful and sometimes curious customs. For eight new Baltimoreans, the first year presented both pleasant surprises and unexpected challenges, but ultimately, they're all happy they wound up here, and at least a couple can't imagine ever leaving.
Rosa Ramirez-Lopez had a dramatic, but eventually reassuring introduction to Baltimore.
The Federal Hill resident was in town a mere two weeks, still surrounded by half-emptied moving boxes, when she was struck by a pain so sudden and severe she thought she was having either a heart attack or an aneurysm. Luckily, the 35-year-old was on the phone with her husband, Family League of Baltimore executive director Rafael Lopez, that very moment.
He called the ambulance while their one-year-old slept upstairs and their three-year-old looked on in confusion. After the paramedics arrived, took her vitals, and determined that she needed to go nearby Harbor Hospital, the lieutenant and crew members offered to stay with her children until her husband got home (he arrived moments later). That's where this city's compassion started, she recounts months later, but it's certainly not where it ended.
Ramirez-Lopez was suddenly scheduled for a whirlwind of medical tests, told she had lymphoma, "and basically started planning my funeral thousands of miles from my family back in Northern California," she states plainly.
A week later, she was rushed into surgery at John Hopkins. Part of her lung was removed, and along with it, a benign tumor. Her prognosis wasn't cancer after all. While all of this was going on, "virtual strangers lined up to take care of my two small children," Ramirez-Lopez recounts. "It was just amazing. It was incredible."
Neighbors came by with food, new colleagues of her husband's—some of whom he had only briefly met—took their children to the zoo and for picnics in Ramirez-Lopez's hospital room so she could be with them while she was recovering.
While she hasn't had much of a chance to get out and explore the city, the new resident is still astonished at the benevolence she experienced, some of it from people she has yet to even meet.
"Baltimoreans are amazing," she says. "We can't imagine living anywhere else."
The friendliness of Baltimoreans is a recurring theme among newcomers. For those who live here, we can easily forget this—in fact, we may have never noticed it in the first place—but time and time again, first-year Baltimoreans rave about how welcoming Charm City is, extolling its neighborhood feel, inclusiveness, and the kindness of its residents.
In fact, Long Island native and formerly brusque New Yorker Cait Rohan found the friendliness downright jarring when she first moved to Mt. Vernon in January.
"You're taught to give people attitude when they approach you" in New York City, the 23-year-old web editor explains. "I was taught not to speak to anyone because they're crazy. Stare straight ahead, mind your business, and don't talk to strangers." But this no-eye-contact ethos was challenged early in her residency. This spring, Rohan was on a quick trip to her neighborhood drugstore when she got caught in a downpour.
"Nice dress!" Rohan heard as she hurried back to her apartment.
"Great," she thought, some weirdo was offering a creepy "compliment" on her favorite long, flowy, and now soaked dress.
Then came the follow-up: "Can't go wrong with a hippie dress!"
When she whipped around to see who was commenting, she saw a nice-looking middle-aged man with what appeared to be his wife and their little girl. Not even a year ago, Rohan surmises she would have mumbled something along the lines of "Okay, pervert, stop talking to me." Instead, she breathed a sigh of relief, thanked him, and reminded herself that she was in Baltimore now, not the unforgiving concrete jungle that is Manhattan.
"People will always talk to you," Rohan says of her new home. "I've gotten over being the New Yorker who's like, 'Ugh, I hate talking to people.' I don't feel like I'm like that at all anymore."
Even those who've relocated from that supposed bastion of folksy geniality—the Midwest—find Baltimoreans unexpectedly agreeable.
"Surprisingly, the people are actually a lot nicer here," insists Jim Ramirez, who made the move to Roland Park with his wife and two young children from Ann Arbor, MI, in November. He notes that drivers are more aggressive and life more structured in the Midwest, a lifestyle he thinks was spawned by generations of factory workers punching the clock then rushing home for dinner.
Mary Lee Schin, 51, was also pleasantly surprised upon her arrival in Baltimore last June. The new Federal Hill resident and her husband relocated here from, coincidentally, Ann Arbor, MI, but before that, had spent more than two decades in Texas, which Schin's husband Elliott describes as a "giant fraternity."
"You can't get anything done unless you're a Texan," Schin explains of the collegiate metaphor. "We were outsiders, and there was no way I was going to develop a Texas accent. Even though I lived there 21 years I was still considered an outsider."
Not so in Baltimore. In fact, Schin is experiencing a sense of community like she's never encountered before. Whether it's joining the Riverside Neighborhood Association to tackle community concerns or linking up with other new mothers through a Federal Hill parents group, she's reveling in the newfound, unexpected camaraderie.
"I would never have seen that in Texas at all—women banding together and trading information," she says. "They're very independent people [in Texas]. They'd rather tough it out than ask somebody for something."
Freelance artist Jaime Zollars, 32, a recent Fells Point transplant from Los Angeles, theorizes that Baltimoreans' sociability stems from the city's deep roots that go beyond residents to the city itself.
"Baltimore has a feeling of authenticity," she says. "The buildings have been here forever, and a number of my neighbors have lived in this neighborhood their entire lives." She contrasts that to Los Angeles: "L.A. feels like mostly transplants—Hollywood industry folks, college kids, and people passing through. It's much harder to find people who have always lived there. Of course, the architecture doesn't have as much history either."
But, occasionally, that deep-seated localism manifests itself in clannish suspicion of new residents, particularly if they represent a challenge to the status quo.
When JoAnn Rodriguez pulled up in front of her new home in Rosemont last October, she was in full daydream mode. "I'm going to make this my own little paradise," the 51-year old thought happily.
And, for the most part, she has. Sure, the one-time Montgomery County resident's relationship with her partner, Jacqueline Cooper, initially sparked curiosity among inquisitive neighbors in their conservative, mostly Baptist neighborhood, but once they found out how handy Cooper is—she's a contractor and, as Rodriguez tells it, can fix nearly anything—the curiosity turned into excitement.
Despite the neighborhood's growing warmth to Rodriguez, Cooper, and their rescue American bulldog Bugsy, a local Baptist church recently toned down her good feelings when the preacher labeled gay people "demons" during a Sunday sermon.
"I realized he was talking about me. I just got up, walked out in the middle of the sermon, right down the middle of the aisle," she recounts calmly. She followed up with a letter to the minister at Perkins Square Baptist Church—still unanswered at press time—and is in the process of finding a new place of worship.
"People still hold on to some real old thinking," she says.
The incident was only a temporary setback for the enthusiastic new resident. Coming from a swanky gated community in Rockville, Rodriguez is thrilled to finally live in a neighborhood where people actually talk to one another. She loves spending afternoons on her stoop with Bugsy talking to passersby, and has made friends with the mailman, who grew up in the neighborhood.
"I find Baltimore to be a little bit more small town," she explains. "People really know you in your community. It's more neighborhood-oriented. They were pretty transient [in Rockville]."
While Baltimoreans in general receive high marks from newcomers, the city itself—its infrastructure, policies, and practices—engenders some criticism and confusion.
For instance, there's the lack of public transportation ("I hate driving. In New York, you can take the subway everywhere," Rohan protests), the provincial hours ("People are sleeping. Things are closed. Deal with it," Rohan must remind herself often), and the high taxes (Jim Ramirez is considering a move to Baltimore County for just this reason).
But far and away the most prominent issue is one that all residents, old and new, must grapple with: crime.
Steve Politowski, 28, was aware of Baltimore's reputation for crime before he moved to Canton from Charleston, SC, just after the New Year.
"Baltimore gets a pretty bad rap for being violent," Politowski says. "Obviously, statistics don't lie, but they only hear what's on the news. They don't realize it's confined to certain areas."
Butchers Hill resident Andy Locke, 26, didn't know much about Baltimore before he moved here in November. As a boy, his family would sometimes come down from Philadelphia for Orioles games, and when he got older, he watched Homicide and then The Wire, but that was about the extent of his real-life exposure.
"You hear things about Baltimore. It always had this stigma," he says. "But it's just a matter of where you go and being smart. Two blocks away could be dangerous, but another two blocks away, it's a bunch of families."
Cait Rohan doesn't sugarcoat her feelings when it comes to safety, describing the city as "hit or miss."
"Sometimes I do [feel safe], but sometimes I really don't," she says, pausing to mention that a couple of her friends have been mugged and one was at home during a break-in.
"Baltimore's just this charming city, but it also has a really, really dark side. A lot of innocent people become victims for no reason," she explains. "Sometimes people are just at the wrong place at the wrong time. I've been scared just walking around during the daylight. It's block by block. You have to keep your guard up."
Thankfully, a vibrant cultural landscape goes a long way toward compensating for Baltimore's other failings.
Jim Ramirez will never forget what he felt when he arrived in Baltimore that first night. He made the eight-hour drive from Ann Arbor in a single day and hit the last leg of his trip on I-95 sometime after 9 p.m. He rounded a corner on the busy highway, and suddenly saw the glowing city skyline.
"This is a real city," he said to himself, still hypnotized by the memory. "I've made the move from a Midwest college town to an urban center. That was pretty exciting."
Rohan appreciates Baltimore's flair.
"I feel like there's a certain style that people in Baltimore have," she says. "Thrift store, vintage, fun, kitschy."
Obviously, the eight rookies are quickly catching on.
"I just heard about 'Hon,'" Locke jokes a week after Hampden's annual HonFest. "I thought it was Huntfest!"
Politowski's scratching his head about the whole Old Bay thing.
"Why is it weird that I don't like Old Bay on my crabs?" he asks. "I can't stand Old Bay. Everyone I know that's from Maryland is all about Old Bay."
Seasoning preferences aside, the new residents feel their transitions to full-fledged Baltimoreans have gone remarkably smoothly.
Zollars never counted on staying in Baltimore beyond her husband's three-year residency. In fact, when she thought of moving here, "there was no spark," she recalls.
So what changed? "I think it was how quickly and how well we were received here. The sense of community made it seem we had lived here longer than we had. It feels comfortable and easy. We just slid right in."
"It wouldn't have been a place where I thought I'd ever live," she says. And yet, here she is: home sweet home.