June 9, 2013
“You just rode under the oldest railroad bridge in North America,” Ed Orser, who literally wrote the book on the Gwynns Falls, informs two-dozen bicyclists touring Charm City’s parks, mill valleys, and streams. Pedaling past the granite B&O bridge, listening to the “falling” stream, Orser stops at Winan Meadows, named after Thomas Winans, who made a fortune building Russia’s first railroad and put his estate here.
“Where you’re standing right now would’ve been a four or six-lane highway if people hadn’t fought to preserve this area,” Orser says. “Route 70 ends not far from here. It’s 2,000 miles the other way to Utah and plans called for it to go downtown and meet I-95.”
Approaching a picturesque small dam in historic Dickeyville, several riders get off their bikes for photos, shocked they’re still within city limits. “I’m flabbergasted,” a young woman tells two friends. The 25-mile tour, organized by Eli Pousson of Baltimore Heritage, is a sub-event of the annual Tour Dem Parks, Hon! ride, attracting a record 1,300 participants this morning. The ride loops through Druid Hill Park and the Jones Falls Trail, later heading to Federal Hill. Of course, it isn’t all parks and streams.
Stopped at a traffic light on East Baltimore’s once notorious and now simply downtrodden red-light district, Pousson notes that nearby St. Vincent de Paul’s once held a regular 2:30 a.m. Mass for the printers and strippers who both pulled late shifts in the neighborhood. “I’ve wanted to organize a vaudeville and burlesque bike tour for a year and a half,” Pousson says, glancing around “The Block.” “But sometimes those things look better on paper than they do in reality.”
June 15, 2013
Pump It Up
North Charles Street
Crowds cram Charles Street’s sidewalk in Mt. Vernon, straining for a better vantage. The 2013 Baltimore Pride Parade just ended and now Segway-driving city police are clearing the street for the annual High Heel Race. At stake: a two-foot trophy, $1,100 in prizes, and Champagne.
“Payless,” says Greg Mazzeo, explaining where he found size-11 black heels. “I’m wearing ugly black socks so they’re snug and I can run.” Chuck Stanley jokes his pumps came from “Sal-vay”—aka The Salvation Army. “Painted them red to match my shorts.”
The race is short, Read to Eager, but tough—a dead uphill sprint, including some jostling before the pack separates. Jay Cruz, who has won previously, gets smacked in the face early. However, his friend, Steven Powell, in brown pumps beneath coordinated camouflage pants, breaks free and wins going away. Shirtless, Powell cartwheels across the finish line. “He’s been training for three months, in heels, on a treadmill,” Cruz says, begrudgingly, as Powell, a choreographer who ran high-school track, gathers his awards. The winner nods affirmatively, slightly embarrassed. “With ankle weights,” Cruz adds.
Nearby, Stanley, who takes a very respectable fourth, remains out of breath. “I’m going to be 43,” he says. “I’m ready for a drink for Crissakes.”
June 22, 2013
North Collington Avenue
Elaine Eff struggles momentarily with the karaoke machine that’s serving as her microphone and speaker. The bus tour she’s leading, the Painted Screen Pilgrimmage, is sold out. She passes out maps.
“We’re in the heart of Highlandtown,” she says, “going to the Lourdes of painted screens.” Heading down Eastern Avenue, Eff points to examples in row-house windows—including a glorious image of Patterson Park’s pagoda, drawing “oohs and aahs” from inside the bus. She provides brief neighborhood histories before reaching the birthplace of the painted screen, East Baltimore’s St. Wenceslaus community. Across from the Italianate church, Czech butcher William Oktavec painted the first screen window, 100 years ago, advertising his produce and meats. Neighbor Emma Schott saw Oktavec’s handiwork and a light bulb went off. “You mean, my husband can sit inside in his underwear, drink a beer, read the newspaper, and no one walking by can see him?” Eff says, mock-imitating Schott. Eff is highlighting, of course, the sidewalk proximity of row-house living rooms and the practicality of the screen art before air-conditioning. So, Oktavec painted Schott a red mill alongside a stream, and, soon enough, the entire block wanted painted screens. The tour weaves past the former McElderry Park row home of Johnny Eck, a “half-man” circus performer who became an Oktavec protégé; then Canton, where original paintings remain.
Earlier, the Creative Alliance showed Eff’s documentary, The Screen Painters. In the film, William Oktavec Jr., whose brother, Richard, and nephew, John, carried on the family tradition and whose works are part of a revival in Highlandtown, talks about his dad and the folk-art medium he launched. “What I like about it is what I like about Baltimore,” Oktavec says. “It’s like Babe Ruth and baseball—that things like this can exist here and endure.”