About four years ago, my wife Brenda and I were driving back to New York City, where we lived at the time, from Baltimore, where I grew up, when she did something that truly shocked me.
“We should move to Baltimore,” she said, staring dreamily at the Harford County farmlands along Interstate 95.
If I had been drinking something, I would have done a spit-take. “Really?” I asked. “Why?”
I grew up in Pikesville and moved to New York months after graduating from Pikesville High School in 1992. To me, Baltimore was a hopelessly lame town, and New York represented everything that was big, new, exciting, and cool.
It turned out I was right about New York. I instantly fell in love with the city, its energy, its culture, its nightlife, its walkability, its subways, and so much more. With the exception of a stint living in Kenya as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, I stayed in the New York area for 17 years. I became a magazine writer and editor and met and married Brenda, a beautiful, smart poet-teacher from Los Angeles there. Our son, Jack, was born at New York Methodist Hospital in 2006.
It was only after Jack was born that New York’s drawbacks started to grate on me. For one thing, our Brooklyn apartment was impossibly small. It had a railroad layout, which means that one room leads to the next, with no hallways or doors (though we did have a single door put in, breaking the apartment in half). Jack’s “room” was essentially in the kitchen, and I’ll never forget trying to silently cook dinner after he went to sleep, or tiptoeing through it to get to the bathroom.
I loved that we had a grocer, a butcher, a fishmonger, a dry cleaner, a movie theater, a gym, and several great restaurants and bars within a two-block radius, but I hated that we had no green space to hang out in. (Our “picnics” on the fire escape were laughably pathetic.) And getting out of town to Baltimore or anywhere else proved to be a hassle: After getting fed up with Amtrak and buses, we bought a used car—then spent hours each week searching for places to park it.
The truth is, by the time Brenda suggested the idea of moving to Baltimore, I had already begun to think that raising a family in New York was not the best option for us. When Jack was six months old, we looked for a bigger apartment and just couldn’t believe how limited the choices in our price range were. We bought a house in Jersey City, New Jersey, just on the other side of the Holland Tunnel from Manhattan. There, we had more space and a 15-square-foot yard, but we were still paying a ton and feeling cramped by city life. It was after about a year there, when Brenda was pregnant with our second son, that she made her suggestion.
In the days that followed, the idea of moving back to Baltimore looked better and better. For one thing, I wanted to be closer to—and have our kids be closer to—our extended family. More than that, as I watched Jack, all the great things from my childhood came rushing back to me: cruising around the harbor on my dad’s shoulders, seeing the fireworks at Oregon Ridge, going to Orioles games—Yankees games are absolutely not the same. I wanted to share those experiences with Jack.
Also, since leaving town at 17, I had had a chance to rediscover Baltimore as an adult, as I introduced it to Brenda. We explored neighborhoods like Mt. Vernon, Patterson Park, and Station North, I had previously only viewed from backseat windows.
The rediscovery actually began just a couple years after I left. While going to college in New York, I would spend occasional weekends with a high-school friend who had stayed in town and gone to Loyola University (then Loyola College). We jumped from Normal’s bookstore to Funk’s Democratic coffeehouse to the Papermoon Diner, and I suddenly realized that Baltimore could be much more than the boring town I thought I had known.
With Brenda, I had come to appreciate additions like the American Visionary Art Museum and the Single Carrot Theatre, which stood up well compared to some of New York’s most ambitious cultural homes. The clincher came when, as a writer for Rolling Stone, I was assigned to write a story about Baltimore’s music world, which, on the strength of acts like Dan Deacon, Beach House, and Ponytail, was being named “Best Scene” in America. This time, I spent a weekend hopping from the Ottobar to The True Vine to the H&H Building—and it felt more vibrant than anything I had done in New York in a long time.
In the weeks after Brenda made the suggestion, I looked around for job opportunities in Baltimore and quickly found out about an opening here at Baltimore magazine. Six weeks later, we jumped. Brenda was seven months pregnant when we moved into my parents’ house to look for a place of our own. I was disappointed to find that Funk’s was gone—along with Pikesville mainstay Steak & Egg and a couple of other old haunts—but generally, it really did feel like coming home.
After we moved, I kept hearing variations on the same theme from lots of people. “Everyone always comes back to Baltimore,” people would say with a wry smile and a nod. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Soon enough, I reconnected with old friends, many of whom had never left the area, but also plenty who did leave—many for more than a decade—before coming back to Baltimore. One was Stephanie Hershkovitz, a McDonogh grad who moved to New York and became a lawyer. She moved back to town two years ago to open a restaurant with her chef brother.
“I moved to Philadelphia for college, and then New York, and I never really had any thoughts of coming back to Baltimore,” says Hershkovitz, who opened Hersh’s Pizza and Drinks in Federal Hill with her brother, Josh, last year. She says that she misses the walkability of New York, as well as the restaurant scene and the more cosmopolitan culture, but she’s also surprised by how well she’s adapted to Baltimore.
“I like how friendly it is here,” she says. “It’s something I didn’t realize I would respond to so much. I also didn’t realize how much seeing flowering trees every day would have an impact on my mental state.”
It’s true that no matter how much Baltimore’s cultural world grows, it will never have the weight of New York, where one is frequently struck by the feeling of being in The Most Important City in the World. When you live there, a little bit of that importance rubs off on you and lifts you up. For many New Yorkers, it becomes arrogance—just look at the Yankees—but it’s hard to deny that living in New York feels special.
But I’ve come to find that living in Baltimore feels special, too. I feel it in our history as an important American city—in many ways a microcosm of the country’s ethnic divisions and industrial boom and bust. I feel kinship with the offbeat, innovative artists that we’ve sprung, from Edgar Allan Poe and Phillip Glass to John Waters, Frank Zappa, and Tupac Shakur; I feel it in our nickname, Charm City—perhaps the most appropriate municipal moniker in America.
I love our neighborhoods: The friendly, communal pulse of Mt. Washington, where we live now, which practically explodes with pride at the annual Fourth of July parade and Halloween hayride; The intellectual stimulation and gorgeous architecture of Mt. Vernon; the warm diversity and great food in Upper Fells Point. The best perk of my job is that I get to explore this jigsaw city day in and day out.
David Alima also grew up here before moving out west to work in the music industry. Like me, he and his wife found their way back to Baltimore in 2008, looking to reconnect with family.
“Both my and my wife’s families live in the area,” says Alima, who, until recently, worked for Everyman Theatre. “All of a sudden, I had five nieces and nephews to get to know.”
Like me, he enjoyed rediscovering Baltimore after moving back. “It was much more vibrant than I remembered—more music, more food,” he says. “There was never a venue like Rams Head Live! when I was growing up, attracting national acts.”
Only recently have I come to realize just how prevalent this phenomenon is. When I started asking around for this story, I was deluged with stories of people who had returned to Baltimore, as if tethered by the ankle. Some had families, some not; some swore they’d never return, others were open to it; some found jobs here, others are still looking for work. Somehow, they were all drawn back to Baltimore.
So, the question is, why do so many people move back to Baltimore? Is it that people all over the country move away from their hometowns to explore the world, only to return? I’m sure the desire to raise a family in the ways and places a person remembers from his or her own childhood drives many back home.
And yet, while I have no scientific evidence, I suspect that people return to Baltimore more often than they do to other cities. For one thing, our proximity to D.C. means that professionals from most fields can find an opportunity in the region. But also, I’d like to believe that Baltimore, more than most places, leaves a mark on its young.
It sounds like a backhanded compliment to say that Baltimore is the kind of place you can only appreciate once you leave, but I think it’s true. When you grow up amid the quirky charm and dreadful accent native to our fair city, you don’t really recognize how special they are. It’s like the way I grew up hearing my dad’s corny jokes. (Every time we’d walk into a restaurant and someone asked “Table for five?” he’d glance around at us and say “Nah, five tables of one.”) I would roll my eyes every time. After some years away, I started to find the jokes hilarious. Now, I use them every chance I get.
Baltimore is a city of underdogs. Everyone here seems to grow up thinking things are better everywhere else. It’s only after you’ve been away for a while that you realize: You never had it so good as you did back home in Charm City.