Walking on Sunshine, Playing With Fire

Everyone is familiar with the bizarre urban practice of shoe tossing, the dangling of old shoes, usually sneakers from overhead wires. No one seems to know the full story behind it, and like so many urban legends there probably is no full story to know. Most of what we think we know about it is total bullshit.

But there is one thing about shoe tossing that we do know for sure: it’s ugly and stupid and it seems to happen much more often in crummy neighborhoods like ours than in more expensive neighborhoods like Canton or Roland Park. Like other elements of the urban experience some people may romanticize shoe tossing, but when you have to live with it every day it’s not so cute. Shoe tossing is just litter- litter in the sky that can’t be picked up, that stays there for years and just gets uglier as time passes. One of the best ways to tell a nice neighborhood from a garbage neighborhood is to ask oneself literally, “Am I surrounded by garbage?”

The Chop is intimately familiar with what it’s like to live around tossed shoes, as there was a pair dangling in the alley behind the Chophouse when we moved in. Being a seaman by trade, we’re very much accustomed to lines and ropes that wear out in the elements and need to be replaced. If a 9″ hawser needs to be end-for-ended twice a year, these laces should rot in the weather and the shoes should fall down sooner or later, right? Wrong.

As one of the hoodrats in this documentary boasts, the pair of shoes he tossed in his neighborhood hung there for nearly twenty years. Twenty years!!! They’re probably still hanging there today.

With every year that’s passed, this pair of shoes in our alley has bugged us more and more. Every time we’re out picking up litter or sweeping up leaves in the alley it doesn’t matter how hard we work: the place will still look trashy with these shoes hanging there. It’s insidious. When your neighbor turns his backyard into a trash pile at least you can call the city and they’ll eventually clean it up. No one is coming to cut down shoes off a line. Not 311, not Verizon, BGE, Comcast… no one cares.

In six years of living under these shoes we’ve finally reached the point of exasperation. We went to Home Depot to see about renting one of these to possibly cut them down, but all it got us was a nice lecture from the tool rental guy about how overhead wires are dangerous and we should leave them alone and live with them. Or call the utility. Consider it a mark of the Chop’s maturity that we stood there, deep in the county suburbs in a big box store, and nodded silently and said “Okay, yeah, you’re right.” to this dopey fool who doesn’t have to live in a garbage neighborhood and thinks that any utility would bother to come retrieve a pair of shoes.

We just became even more determined. We brought out the ladder. Reached up there with a man-helper and an old paint roller, just to see if we could reach. We could, but all we could really do was get the roller frame tangled up. The shoes weren’t moving.

We climbed down. We paced the alley. We cussed. Duct taping a knife on there or something wasn’t gonna work.

Eventually the answer came to us. Get some paper. Crumple it up and tape it to the end of the stick. Climb up the ladder. Light the paper on fire. Torch the laces.

It worked.

It was so simple we should have thought of it five years ago. Take if from the Chop- if you’ve got the ghost of old shoes haunting your neighborhood, you can kill it with fire.

Robicelli’s Bakery- Don’t Believe the Hype

We had never heard of Robicelli’s Bakery until a couple of weeks ago when Gothamist published an article about its owners’ plan to close their NYC retail location and move to Baltimore to open a new one.

The premise of that piece was that New York City is too expensive and places too many onerous restrictions on small business owners so the Robicellis set their sights on the greener grass of Maryland. We were initially a little skeptical about such a dubious premise, but we didn’t think much of it and promptly forgot the whole thing. It didn’t seem like a story worth telling, really. Some people are going to maybe open a bakery somewhere in the city at some point in the future… so what?

Well, apparently this little ole blog was just about the only site on the whole world wide web that didn’t think this news was worthy of publication. All of a sudden the Robicellis are seemingly everywhere in the media including (but not limited to) Eater, Brooklyn Magazine, Mashable, Zagat, City Paper, and The Sun. Except, of course, it’s not all of a sudden.

The Press and Media page on the Robicelli’s website is enormous. Not only have they got a lot of press citations but when we look at the page we can’t help but call to mind one word: slick. But of course it’s slick. The whole site is, really. That shouldn’t be a surprise because when you click over to the about us page the first line identifies Allison Robicelli as a ‘PR director.’

That they need a PR professional working for them is pretty obvious. After all, these are people with a wholesale business and a cookbook to sell and another forthcoming. It’s less clear whether they are contracted with a PR firm or whether Allison really does do it all herself and if so what sort of training she has in that line. But the Gothamist article bemoans that the couple was working 70 hours a week. It seems to us that between their myriad social media feeds, giving interviews, writing a cookbook, appearing on the Food Network etc etc that virtually none of those 70 hours are Ma and Pa slaving over hot ovens in the family bakeshop as they would like the rest of us to believe.

The Robicellis are crying poverty to Gothamist, even saying publicly that they’ve cut their own salaries to pay staff. But this doesn’t square with what she’s told Brooklyn Magazine saying the couple just landed a major distributor and that their business catering weddings is booming. Besides, one simply doesn’t undertake a major relocation and start a new venture with no money. They’ve got the bucks. And if they don’t have the bucks they’ve got the financing.

The Couple complains that staff costs are rising, but as the Mashable article points out, NYC restaurants are having trouble attracting talented staff because they want to keep pay low! So these people come to Baltimore where they can pay employees as little as possible. There’s no chance they come to town and start pay at the $15 an hour that fast food employees are getting in NYC. Meanwhile, Allison had this to say to Mashable:

“Robicelli says teaching her staff business and management skills is not only important to their careers, but that it benefits her business as well and allows her to delegate major responsibilities”

So what she’s saying in effect is that she wants to pay her employees less and make them do more; saddle them with major responsibilities that are likely outside their job descriptions. As a union member, this does not sit well with us. What Robicelli and everyone else involved with the Mashable article fails to realize is that not every employee wants to own a business one day. Your own dream is not universal. But every employee does want an honest day’s pay for a full day’s work. The scourge of ‘shift pay’ and the underbelly of the Baltimore restaurant scene is seedy enough as it is. Perhaps Allison would better understand this if she were truly of the working class and not of the mercantile class. You can’t be Labor while you’re Management.

All the while the Robicellis are holding themselves up as ‘jobs creators’ for the city to the Sun. Our city has no shortage of low-wage, no-benefit service industry jobs but since Allison Robicelli wants to “make jobs, make people smile” we’re guessing they’ll let employees keep their tattoos uncovered and wear a Wye Oak t-shirt to work, which you sure can’t do at any other gimmicky dessert place like that great Casino-Jobs-Creator the Mallow Bar. (Oh wait… the Mallow Bar closed down after 6 months so we guess you CAN wear a band t-shirt to the unemployment line.)

Anyway, slogging through the rest of this Gothamist piece Allison complains about the utility ConEd being an expensive monopoly and calls it a ‘kicker’ of why they’re closing, as if BGE here in Baltimore weren’t also an expensive monopoly- one that is actively pursuing another giant rate increase in Annapolis. She then complains about other official red tape:

City agencies and the hurdles many businesses must leap over are another source of frustration. “We’ve gotten a bunch of fines from the Department of Sanitation because on alternate sides parking day, all the cars on the block double park in front of our shop. When that happens, nobody can get out and clean the garbage 18-inches from the curb so then Sanitation comes and they give a ticket to every single business on the block. All of us.”

The culture of fining small businesses and attaching expensive requirements for permitting and other work can make owners feel as though they’re ATMs for the city, from what some call excessive policing of restaurants by the DOH to the installation of a hand sink that cost the couple $10,000 after acquiring and hiring the necessary permits and persons to get the work done up to city code. “If you see some guy having an ice cream cart in front of his shop? Huge permit! Outdoor seating? Huge permit! If you decide you just want to have a bench in front of your store but somebody decides to pull it out a little bit so it’s a little bit over 18-inches off the front? Fine! Massive fine!”

She conveniently ignores that all of those ‘hurdles’ are present and often persistent in Baltimore. We have parking restrictions for street cleaning. You need a permit for outdoor seating. We like our restaurants’ employees to wash their hands in a proper sink and not pile up garbage willy-nilly in front of their stores. There are minor privilege fees for ‘a little bench’ on the sidewalk. Baltimoreans hate double parkers as much as everyone else does. Etc etc etc. If she thinks this city is a place where you can just hang your shingle and do whatever the hell you please she’s in for some disappointment.

The Robicellis, described in the press as ‘Brooklyn’s biggest boosters’ seem very eager indeed to bring their unbridled civic enthusiasm to Baltimore, describing the city in absolutely glowing terms when asked about their visits here. They would have done well to become familiar with someone like Michael Marx, who arrived on a similar wave of optimism and was a successful restauranteur here owning three places over the course of the last 16 years. Marx recently ran screaming from the city’s small business scene for many of the very reasons Robicelli cites above. As he told the Sun this Summer:

“I was one of the [city's] biggest cheerleaders,” he said. “I came [to Baltimore] from Philadelphia. I chose Baltimore back in 1999. ‘There’s great opportunity here,’ I thought.”

He said the hardest part of dealing with the city was the lack of communication among the different agencies. “It’s never easier. It never got any easier,” Marx said. “Sixteen years of doing it, and it’s the same ineffective system.”

But if you don’t believe him ask any of the other scores of small businesses that have opened to fanfare and quietly closed in the last few years. Ask Anisha Jagtap whose Puffs and Pastries on the Avenue in Hampden was a very close analogue to Robicelli’s Bakery until it went out of business. Ask Chazz Palminteri, who came singing the city’s praises on a big PR blitz and flopped on his face in one of the biggest most prime restaurant spaces around. Ask Michael Mina who did the very same thing with Pabu and Lamill. As a Baltimore native, we’re understandably a little salty about New Yorkers ‘Columbusing’ the city and telling us how great they just found out it is when we’ve been living here our whole life. Hell, we’re looking forward to moving out of it, because as the Robicelli’s are about to personally find out choosing a safe neighborhood and putting your kids through school and generally being a middle aged person in Baltimore is really fucking hard work and exhausting unless you have a ton of dough, which we suspect the Robicelli’s do.

We would go on to argue that perhaps the best thing Baltimore does have going for it is that it is not New York City. The very same Gothamist article we’ve been talking about points an accusing finger squarely at luxury developers, and the Robicelli’s wistfully talk about how much they loved the New York of the olden days of 15-20 years ago and how the city they loved is gone. But in the Sun the truth comes out: it was ‘a developer’ who made them an offer to move here. The ‘kicker’ wasn’t ConEd or anything else to do with NYC. They’re being lured here by the cold cash of commercial real estate, probably by one of the usual suspects like Bozzuto or Beatty or Paterakis, who knows a thing or two about baking himself. And they want to pass this off as a love for the city and its so-called Authenticity. Bullshit.

As far as the good old days of pre-Giuliani NYC go, we’ve heard that song and dance before. These people have said publicly that they think they can reclaim some lost Gotham in Baltimore, but the city the Chop grew up loving is gone too, and Gentrification is strangling out the last of it.

With every 10 Light or Anthem House or Rotunda that goes up, and there are scores of them, we see higher and higher rents and more of the Manhattanization of the city. But that Manhattanization isn’t just reflected in $3500 rents and a fleet of Ubers crawling around the harbor, our city leaders are ecstatic about an actual rebranding with names like Ceriello, Season’s, Two Boots, Paulie Gee’s, and Dinosaur Barbecue going up on signs all over town. The mayor even cut the goddamn ribbon at a Shake Shack. They sell Yankee gear outside Camden Yards every time the planefuls of pinstripes land at BWI.

No, we don’t want to live in New York, or a miniature provincial version of it. We’re quite happy with our homegrown businesses. We suspect these itinerant bakers think they can come to town and be a big fish in a small pond. Perhaps they can. They certainly have the PR acumen to do it, and our media outlets have already demonstrated a willingness to refer to them as ‘beloved’ and print whatever they have to say absolutely uncritically. But their schtick steps directly on the toes of places like The Charmery and Diablo Doughnuts. Every Nutella lasagna they sell is one less cake sold by Duff Goldman or one less pie from Rodney Henry. Market share is a zero sum game, especially in little old Baltimore.

Which brings us to the final thing that just bugs us about these people. Not only are they doing the ‘fun-loving hipsters selling pricey desserts’ routine, which has already been done to death locally and reached its peak right around the time that food trucks started multiplying, but they’re doing it so much worse than all the people we just named. One glance at the Robicelli’s menu and social media feeds reveals them to be a couple of Hipster Guy Fieris (and as we all know Guy also came to town on a shining wave of PR recently). What else are we supposed to think of people who put prosciutto on a wedding cake or chicken on a cupcake? Sorry, but we couldn’t be less interested in shelling out $65 for a 10″ eggnog cake, even if it’s served to us personally by someone like Matt Robicelli who eats tacos on the toilet, has a celebrity chef’s name tattooed on his arm and lets Baltimore bums act as crossing guards for his kids.

Bottom line- we think these two are a couple of phonies. The Robicellis may brand themselves as “working class pastry” but when they get to Baltimore it’ll become clear pretty quickly where they fall in our city’s class strata and that working class people aren’t buying $30 pies. The real working class will be getting their Tastykakes and Little Debbies and shit at the supermarket, just like they always have.

2015 Holiday Happenings in Baltimore

December is well nigh in Charm City and it is the most Christmassy time of the year. Of course, Santa’s not the only one making a list- writers and bloggers in all corners of the Internet are busily tapping out their suggestions for making merry during the holiday season, and since we here at the Baltimore Chop love a good yuletide as much as the next blogger we thought we’d share a little about what we’ll be up to this holiday season.

Thursday, December 3. The Lighting of the Washington Monument kicks off the start of the season this Thursday. Ever since we started arriving by bike this event has been a joy to attend. Not having to worry about traffic or parking makes our holiday season all blessed- no stressed. This year’s lighting includes a beer garden open from 4:00 until 8:00 and as you already know the Chop loves a beer garden. Between the warm temperatures and the newly renovated monument this year promises to be a lighting par excellence.

Sunday, December 6. The Mayor’s Annual Christmas Parade hits Hampden again this year. We’ve never bothered with it before but since 2015 will be our last chance to show up drunk and boo at SRB as she floats over the litter and potholes of Falls Road we’re inclined to take it. Word is that she didn’t even bother to show up last year, and this year she’ll probably try to weasel out as well, but hopefully she’ll at least send a deputy mayor for us to boo. Did you know that Baltimore has four deputy mayors? That’s what the city website tells us. Maybe they’ll all show up. That’s a lot of booing!

Saturday, December 12. It’s become something of a Christmas tradition for the Charm City Craft Mafia’s Holiday Heap and the MICA Art Market to be held on the same day, and that tradition continues this year on the twelfth. We love it, because it’s so easy to shop at both with just one trip and this year those with an extra long gifting list can also extend the trip with a visit to the Women’s Industrial Exchange which is now featuring gifts from local artists every weekend in December. For those who can’t make a shopping trip that Saturday Baltimore Magazine has a full roundup of area craft markets.

Sunday, December 13. Speedy Ortiz/Beauty Pill at Metro Gallery. The holidays aren’t all elves and Krampus and trips to the mall. On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me two tickets to see a real goldilocks of a show. Why Goldilocks? Because we have here a pair of bands who are right now in their prime, doing better and better work all the time and who by rights should be bigger than the Metro Gallery at this point, but can still slide right in there for a $12 show. Goldilocks too because as we approach middle age and are seeing more and more reunion shows on our radar it’s nice to be able to go see some very current post-punk bands who are playing adult music for adults without being all stuffy about it.

This show is also a fundraiser for the Girls Rock Camp Foundation. Nothing says ‘adult’ like going to a show and getting a receipt for a donation before the year’s end so you can itemize your taxes, so dig deep this holiday season.

Thursday, December 31. For once, your humble Chop finds himself spending Cuffing Season in the company of a beautiful woman, so our normal NYE routine of sitting on the porch with a fifth of armagnac and listening to the police scanner at midnight just ain’t gonna cut it. Nope, this time around we’re going all-out to celebrate the end of a pretty tough year at Baltimore Social’s Shades and Suits NYE Party. Kevin Plank and the folks at the shiny new City Garage are pretty bullish on Baltimore’s future. It’s so bright, in fact, that we all get to wear shades. With a buffet and premium open bar included in the ticket price, we’re hoping some of that unbridled optimism will rub off on us in the new year.

If you’re still making plans take note: early bird pricing ends today! Click on Missiontix.com now to save $10 on each ticket before regular pricing takes effect tomorrow.

The Mobbies Awards @ Creative Alliance Tonight

Ye Ole Light for All is throwing its annual blog awards party tonight. While we sat out the contest this year we do want to take a moment to acknowledge that it’s a good, fun thing and the annual party is always a nice chance to come and talk face to face with a lot of local people who you maybe only know from online in their various capacities. Party starts at 6:30 tonight. Don’t be late because it only lasts a couple hours. Besides, if you are late you might miss out on an epic weatherman freakout or something.

Here at the Baltimore Chop we like to take Mobbies time as an opportunity for a sort of year-in-review. As we look back over previous Mobbies day posts, each one just seems to get a little more depressing and this one isn’t exactly happy. There’s no getting around it: 2015 has been a bad year in Baltimore. We wouldn’t presume to deserve a blogging award this year because we’ve barely even done any blogging. What writing we did do was overwhelmingly negative, and most of it can be found combined into one long super-post on Medium.

Tonight’s party has a Back to the Future theme, which is meant to tie-in with the recent buzz around the date portrayed in Back to the Future 2 rolling around on the calendar. When we think of the theme we can’t help but reflecting on the morbid return of the 1990′s and 300+ murders in the city. As the Sun reported recently, this represents an all-time high in the per capita murder rate. Sheila Dixon is running for mayor. The Red Line is history. Schools are closing down. There’s a giant scandal in public housing. Lawyers can’t convict dangerous gang members. This jail lawsuit is older than we are, and the jail is still terrible. Kendall Fenwick was murdered in cold blood in his own home by drug dealers bringing back memories of the Dawson Family. Dirt Bikes continue to be a menace to public safety. The number of vacant houses is actually on the rise. We could go on and on about Baltimore problems all day without even mentioning Freddie Gray and the rioting.

It seems to the Chop that almost all of our media consumption this year (which is a lot) has been about how terrible life in Baltimore is. Everyone seems to want to have ‘a conversation’ or ‘a dialogue’ about ‘how to start healing’ etc etc. Whether it’s print, radio, TV or digital all this talk about Baltimore’s troubles invariably falls somewhere between the somewhat dissonant to the dismissible-out-of-hand.

But today, on Mobbies day, the holiest day on the blogging calendar we want to focus on a particular hard-luck story which is near and dear to the Chop’s heart.

The New York Times and the Atlantic both have stories out this week about how banks in Baltimore City are much, much more likely to extend mortgage loans to white buyers in white neighborhoods. As the Sun points out in separate articles this is not the case in Baltimore County, and black homeowners locally fared much worse than whites during the explosion of the housing bubble.

Now, we all know that the city won a very large settlement from Wells Fargo over racist lending practices during the subprime craze. Rather than use it for mortgage relief for victimized homeowners or as a bulwark against further racist lending practices, the city wants to use that money to demolish vacants. While that practice itself is debatable, it is not debatable that deconstruction of vacants is a better alternative and that demolition does nothing to help homeowners affected by subprime steering.

And about those ‘further racist lending practices’ we just mentioned- the Times also reports this week that good old-fashioned 1939 redlining is still very much alive and well in the nation’s bank branches. Even M&T Bank, a name very well known here in Charm City recently settled its own racist lending suit.

M&T and Wells Fargo are certainly household names around the Chophouse. As we told you in the Spring, Wells Fargo holds the mortgage (for which we’re overpaying) and our experience trying to refinance through M&T was a months-long headache which ended with them sending a white home inspector into our black neighborhood and undervaluing the house by tens of thousands of dollars. (We also mentioned coming in for extra “random” scrutiny from Allstate which we believe was due to the home’s location.)

Since we last wrote, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to join a credit union, and so decided that we’d like to try once again to refinance our loan, this time with an institution that doesn’t have a long track record of screwing consumers, and especially poor and black ones. So on Tuesday we got all of our documents together. Oh, about 80 pages or so, you know, pay vouchers and credit card accounts and insurance documents and W2′s and all of that fun stuff. And we put on our little shirt and slacks and tried to look real nice, as one does when one goes to ask for a loan.

We get in the car and we go down to the Navy Federal branch in Glen Burnie. It’s our first time here so we stand near the front door and wait for the front desk man to direct us on whom to see and how to begin the process. We’re in line about 30 seconds when we see a guy come through the door in an oversized sweatsuit with the hood up and a cold-weather type ski mask. He stepped right in front of us and the front desk guy even said hello to him, to which he also replied hello as he looked at the floor and moved back towards the tellers.

“Why the hell is he saying hello to this guy like a regular customer?” we thought to ourselves. “He’s clearly about to rob this bank.” In the next instant we thought “Oh fuck! He is going to rob this goddamned bank isn’t he? Yeah, he is when he reaches the tellers in about two seconds. Right now would be a good time to walk out the door because once he pulls a gun out it’ll probably be too late for that. And hey, if we’re wrong we just come back in 20 minutes and do our banking then, right?”

So we stepped out the front door and went to sit in the car. And a couple minutes later here come the police. Lots of police. The guy did try to rob the bank, of course, and he was caught. Now as if we didn’t have enough headaches to deal with trying to finance a house in a black neighborhood in a racist system, we get to be recorded as a witness to a bank robbery as well. Paired with our neighbor attempting a murder and a gang of kids trying to jump us on our bicycle this is the third violent crime we’ve come in contact with in the last two weeks.

In 2015 when you go out of town or meet a visitor to the city they invariably ask “Is Baltimore really as bad as they say it is?”

Our answer now: “It’s worse.”

The Chop Gets a Car

It was around this time four years ago that the Chop decided to ditch our car and get around exclusively by bike, bus, and any other method besides a privately owned car. When we wrote about it at the time we stressed that we were entering a period of being car-free and not car-less. Recently that period came to an end when we had the good fortune to inherit an old Honda Civic from a family member.

Now that it’s over, how did it go? Well, the results were somewhat mixed. In our case, we don’t have a regular 9-5 commute, or any commute at all to deal with. In four years virtually all of our trips were for pleasure or to run errands. For us the toughest reality of being car-free was regular grocery shopping, but this is a problem easily solved with the nearest supermarket half a mile away. Getting caught in the rain and flat bike tires are very real downsides as well, but are mitigated by certain hassles unique to car ownership.

Overall, getting around Baltimore by bike was not as bad as we thought it might be, and not as bad as we imagine most people believe it to be. We’re definitely going to continue biking to make in-town trips in good weather.

In four years of riding we’ve not been involved in any accidents, and have had very few close calls. We assumed that fighting with the drivers of Baltimore would be a daily occurrence and are pleased to report that it hasn’t happened on more than an occasional basis. Interestingly we’ve found that some of the very worst drivers with the least regard for safety are cab drivers, bus drivers, and other so-called professional drivers who seem to think they own the road because they use it so much. Oblivious suburbanites are out there as well, but they’re surprisingly easy to spot and avoid, and while obliviousness is dangerous it’s not quite as bad as full on aggressive malicious driving.

If you’re thinking about biking in Baltimore, we’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that There are some geographic limits on what makes for an easy cycling trip. The good news is that most of the city is within those limits. We’ve found that about 8 miles each way is the roughly the limit of what a normal person would want to ride to get somewhere. A quick-and-dirty guide for the limits of an easy/moderate cycling commute would be as follows:

North:Cold Spring Lane
South: Potee St. Bridge
East: Haven Street
West: Gwynn’s Falls Park/Leakin Park.

Of course, while it’s geographically possible to reach Leakin Park, there aren’t too many routes to get there that could be described as pleasant and fun cycling routes. Unfortunately we’ve found that people pose a much greater danger to cyclists than cars in Baltimore. We wrote in April 2014 about the assault on cyclist Michael Bowman, which we believe was at least in part motivated by race and class. If you ride a bike here, you are a target. period. A year and a day after we wrote that post Freddie Gray died in his hospital bed and race relations in Baltimore City have gone from bad to worse while violent crime and murder have spiraled out of control.

As we wrote this weekend on Tumblr we were recently chased by a group of black teens twice within a 24 hour period. In our case we were not caught, but nor were we surprised. Unlike Michael Bowman we are well aware that a group of teens is a threat and we were, and remain willing to fight back. While not a rich man, we routinely carry a new iPhone, a very nice watch, a wallet and the bike itself, which combined might cost as much as $3000 to replace, as well as a lot of credit which could potentially be compromised in a robbery. Knowing what we know and having what we have, we’re not going to be as forgiving as Bowman was- we’re going to fight pretty fucking hard pretty fucking quickly to keep what we’ve worked to earn.

Unfortunately, it’s become pretty clear to us over the last four years that the whole series of lifestyle factors and principles commonly referred to as ‘New Urbanism’ is mostly bullshit. They are nice ideas and all, and we wish that the world worked in such a way that we (collectively) could apply these principles to cities as a whole- but we don’t live in that world. We live in the real world where selecting a neighborhood checking all or even most of those boxes costs a shitload of money and is a privilege reserved for those making significantly more than the median income, at least in the long term. For the rest of us, the principles of urbanism take a back seat to the rules of the street which are the same as they’ve ever been.

Over the last year or so we’ve been taking part in a group bike ride on Thursday nights. We’re not going to be doing that anymore. Long rides are fun and we’ve really enjoyed the chance to meet other cyclists, but looking at it objectively it’s just too dangerous. You simply can’t find a route that covers enough miles without venturing into neighborhoods that are flat-out unsafe. Besides being chased last week, we had one cyclist blow a tire in west Baltimore. It’s not that no one would have stayed with him if he’d asked, but he did end up alone after dark on foot in an unfamiliar neighborhood. There were a few other things that night that gave us pause, including another dubious personal safety decision as well as a rider running a stop and nearly getting hit by a car. The last one we went on in the Spring saw a rider getting hit by a thrown object in Brooklyn. We’ve also heard of a few other incidents on the ride, and the crime problems and headaches associated with Baltimore Bike Party are well-known and ongoing. We gave up on that ride two years ago because of safety concerns and municipal hassles. We had thought about volunteering for Bike Party, but why bother? It’s just not fun to us anymore.

So no more group rides for us, and no more riding questionable routes on our own. The Chop’s neighborhood is bad enough, thanks. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Speaking of not having nice things, as you all know by now we’re not getting the Red Line built. Instead we’re getting an overhaul of the bus routes. We personally have absolutely zero confidence in Larry Hogan or anyone else in power or as a consultant to make anything resembling a decent system. As was reported recently, they want to cut the number 8 line, which is not only one of the city’s busiest, but also happens to run right by the Chop’s house.

We sat down this morning to take a full look at the new plan and what did we find on the MTA website? Just a little PR style copy and a few unimpressive static maps that are confusing and are a turn-off even to someone like us, who is genuinely interested in the changes. They couldn’t even get the online maps right, forget about the real-life system. But even though it’s bound to be a pointless headache for us we’re going to go to today’s 4:00-6:30 pm meeting at 201 W. Preston Street in room L1. Info on 7 upcoming meetings here.

(We want to pause here and say publicly that while the 200 Block of West Preston Street looks fine to the casual observer, it is in our opinion one of the very most dangerous blocks in the whole city. Here’s why- It is also at the nexus of some of our racial and class fault lines. Being in the middle of a large state office complex, after 5:00 there are very few ‘eyes on the street’ as Jane Jacobs and the Urbanist crowd like to say. There’s also a subway stop there, and a light rail transfer a block away. Anyone coming up out of this subway station is a sitting duck for criminals waiting to get the jump on them, who then have all of the worst of West Baltimore to escape into just one block to the west. Whether it’s the Rite Aid clerk who was shot recently, the jogger who was raped at gunpoint, this guy a few comments down in the thread on Reddit, or the other guy who was relieved of his wallet and phone at Symphony Center not long before that, this is a very dangerous area and fits what we see as an ongoing pattern of criminals moving between the ‘two Baltimores’ to find victims.)

We have our own ideas about how the bus system should function in Baltimore. For one, each line should have fewer stops. There’s no goddamned reason at all why, for instance, there should be stops on Charles street at 25th, 26th, 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th, etc. Most busy inner city routes have a stop on every single fucking block. If you can’t walk half the distance between 25th street and 28th street you need to be using Mobility service anyway. Fewer stops would speed service, reduce wear and tear and fuel use, make stops safer, make stops cleaner and easier to maintain, and create more street parking.

Also, we should ditch the circulator entirely and replace it with a short-run system of MTA buses. These buses could run on the same lines as longer routes, but terminate at a certain radius from downtown and be marked as 1F or 3F or 8F, (as in 8Free) sort of in the way that route 12 duplicates service but terminates at North Avenue. The circulator is a money loser and this would provide much the same service with more flexibility among drivers and the fleet. There is also the perception that the circulator is a toy for tourists and yuppies, which isn’t entirely unfounded.

As long as we’re getting rid of entire bus systems, we should do away with the five or six different college buses clogging the streets. The Hopkins buses and shuttles are the worst of these, and have tried to run us down in a bike lane multiple times. If we create a new system of buses to replace and improve on the circulator, it’s not too much to ask Hopkins people to step outside of their precious bubble into the real world and do something as simple as ride a free bus up Charles street or across Monument. For those using shuttles at Loyola and Notre Dame, it would be easy enough to find a way to subsidize a monthly pass for their riders, as a free system wouldn’t likely reach that far.

But whatever happens, we hope the MTA will realize that the needs of everyday transit riders and the wants and wishes of the new urbanists are two completely separate things. The needs of everyday riders must come first in this process, because they are the ones who are stuck with the results. Riding buses in Baltimore has always been and remains by turns annoying, inefficient, unsanitary, unsafe and unpleasant. Our system is not even close to being in a position to attract so-called choice commuters, and we have no reason to believe it will be after an overhaul.

Now that we own a car again, our bus riding days are over, once and for all. Even as someone who is familiar with the whole system, knows how to get around and has a Charm Card to make fares easy, we won’t ride. If we’re going downtown to a big event we’d rather pay $20 for parking than ride a bus. If we blow a tire on the bike far from home, we’d rather call a cab than wait forever for a transfer. Hell, the last time we were on a bus it was so uncomfortable and exasperating we got off well before our stop and walked some three miles home. Why bother being crowded into standing room and lurching to a stop every block when we’ve got two good feet?

And that’s a problem not only for transit, but for every aspect of city life. Anywhere we see an opportunity to get involved, whether it’s today’s meeting or Bike Party or trying to clean up the liquor store on the corner or volunteering to build Kendall Fenwick’s fence. We’ve come around to a sort of fatalistic thinking summed up by the phrase ‘Why Bother?’

Why bother volunteering for a mayoral candidate when we don’t really believe that any of them will bring real improvement? Why bother building that fence or doing the 300 Men March when it’s entirely symbolic anyway? Why take the trouble to document specific complaints against the store on the corner when liquor license renewal season rolls around and we are out at sea and miss the chance to protest at the board? Why bother worrying about buses when we no longer intend to ride them? Why bother trying to make ourselves believe the city is on the verge of a breakthrough when even two more decades of gradual (realistic) improvements wouldn’t be enough to make city living what we wish it were?

Our time is better spent washing the car and fixing up the house to sell so we can move to the county which is the only place we can realistically afford a decent house in a safe neighborhood. As much as we love the city, our hometown, we no longer love living here. We’re starting to be of the opinion, like so many Baltimoreans before us, that over the long term no amount of arts and culture and restaurants and sports and festivals is worth it. The bad is outweighing the good in Baltimore City, and soon it will be time for us to leave for the suburbs in our brand new hand-me-down car.