Photo by Sarah Herman

We hit traffic driving with our friends to Baltimore this past Friday afternoon. In retrospect, we should have expected it. We are retired, but people still go to work everyday for some reason, clogging the highways into Baltimore and most other American cities. Good thing that my friend did the driving.

We were going to see the Light Art exhibit in the Inner Harbor, part of “Brilliant Baltimore Festival of Literature and Light”. It was dark when we arrived and the breath of the city hit me like a bolt of lightning. Something else hit me as well - the icy cold wind blowing from the water. My wife had warned me, but I thought I knew better and a light jacket over a T-shirt and flannel shirt would be quite adequate for a November evening. Honestly, it wasn’t, and for the next two hours I endured my fate shivering stoically.

We entered the Inner Harbor by the small ice rink that looked like a children’s paradise, went through the rather deserted North Pavilion and then around the World Trade Center, and enjoyed the first installation, called Human Tiles. Powerful lights were directed towards the building. We were handed blue, green, yellow and red cardboard cutouts to wave in front of the lights and project colorful, kaleidoscope-like moving shapes up and down the walls of the high-rise.

Most of the installations on display were interactive. We had to jump, step, pedal, move or make faces to cause a response, which was always pleasant and surprising. On this side of the harbor I enjoyed Loop the best, because I had to continuously pull at a lever to make images roll around me and I got warm in the process. On Pier 5 we passed by a romantic antique cruise ship — it had nothing to do with the Light Art exhibit — headed to milder climates. Shivering, I stared longingly through the windows of McCormick and Schmicks Restaurant, with its warm lighting and cozy set tables.

Back on the other side of the harbor, we listened to a band performing at the Concert Stage and admired more light installations. We enjoyed the Canopy, where one needed to pedal very fast on a bicycle to make large umbrella-like canopies slowly rise, expand and light up, and MAPP, where we posed in front of a screen and then watched our own silhouettes splashed onto a wall in changing colorful designs.

The panoramic view of the city skyline was breathtaking — a multitude of lights and colors, modern glass shapes and old chimneys and towers, all reflecting off each other and off the water, while the leaden sky pressed down like a gigantic mushroom. This was the heart of the city, so beautiful and full of life that, I swear, it made the air feel warmer.

Chilled and hungry, we returned to the garage. In the car, the temperature was set to a comfortable 76 degrees and I felt my frozen fingertips melting. At the red light on Conway, a homeless person was holding up a sign. Another one was begging on the opposite side and then another, at the next corner. They had to be freezing. They, too, were a part of the ‘brilliant’ city we were on the verge of leaving. Silently I wondered at the fusion of beauty and misery that we have learned to accept as reality.

Recently my wife and I had some appointments at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a city within a city, with modern buildings, state of the art equipment, multilevel parking and interconnecting passageways. One of our destinations was the Sheikh Zayed Tower, an impressive structure of glass and steel, clearly paid for with money from a very rich donor. Not once have the doctors been late for their appointments with us. Not only are they the best in their field, but they also are friendly and caring. They answered our emails in minutes and addressed our concerns like only family members would. Yet the most depressed areas of Baltimore surround this world-renowned facility. To get there, we had to drive by dilapidated row houses, boarded up stores, ugly gas stations, heaps of abandoned construction materials and broken road signs. Traffic lights hanging from overhead wires hopelessly swayed in the wind and weeds grew in the cracks of the asphalt. People in gray rags huddled at street corners, looking at us longingly as we passed in our safe and comfortable car.

Such imbalance is found everywhere in this city otherwise full of remarkable places — and not just the Inner Harbor and the Johns Hopkins Hospital, but the Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore Museum of Art with its famous Cone Collection and the welcoming Gertrude Restaurant, the Walters Art Gallery and the entire Mount Vernon area, the new construction around Fells Point and the water’s edge townhouses and restaurants, the beautiful marina, the skyscrapers, the wealthy northern suburbs, along with numerous other churches, museums, parks, memorials, top notch medical facilities and universities. And yet, the crime in the city is amongst the highest in the nation. There were a lot of police in the Inner Harbor that night.

Why? What can be done about it?

Of course, the problem is not unique to Baltimore. Homelessness on the West Coast is pervasive. And it’s not just happening in American cities. In any large city in the world, one finds inequality and deep poverty, including in such altruistic places like the Scandinavian countries, Australia and New Zealand. There at least, the governments seem to be making an effort to offer some social safety nets. Our politicians don’t bother. That’s what I gathered from the comments of our highest elected politician, who called Baltimore ‘a disgusting rat and rodent infested mess,’ as if scorn rather than empathy was the answer. As if mockery and contempt would cause the poor to feel ashamed and pull themselves up by their shoestrings. As if they had shoestrings.

Once we left brilliant Baltimore, we drove home to beautiful Columbia, MD, where there are no ghettoes and blighted neighborhoods. It was the genius and the vision of Jim Rouse, the founder of this planned city, to integrate and diversify its 10 ‘villages’. At a cozy Mediterranean restaurant we dined on lamb kebabs, chicken and shrimp, drank a Turkish raki and a pleasant red, called Agora and talked about nothing important.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.