Baltimore ugliness looks better by train. Or at least it looks more interesting. A train ride through the city makes me think of Dickensian London. I suppose the backs of decrepit row houses, crumbling stone walls, stained archways and dank tunnels really date more to the Jack the Ripper era, but either way, the effect is the same.
The city’s decay looks classier, somehow. Rusted steel beams, burned out warehouses and strings of dismal wiring give the bottom layer of the city a steam punk look that in a way makes it seem more appealing than it does from other angles. I can almost picture Sherlock Holmes skulking through the shadows disguised as a luckless tramp (so that of course I would be the only one clever enough to recognize him, especially since people don’t expect to find the fictional London hero in 21st Century Charm City).
Baltimore doesn’t exude this same sense of shabby chic when I drive through by car.
It’s the back yard view that makes the train perspective so interesting. From my seat on the train I see the things people hide behind the manicured fronts of their houses and businesses. The things they’ve shoved aside, things that wait for action or disposal. The things they’ve perhaps forgotten or wish they could forget about. A giant political sign on wheels. Boats that may or may not float. Bicycles that either wait for spring or for someone to muster the energy to ride.
The train lets you watch a scene up close without intruding. I once had the good fortune to travel by train through the Pocono Mountains after a snowfall. In the early amber light just after sunrise, snow-covered hillsides spread out around untouched in all directions. There were no footprints, and the roads wound through the trees like white ribbons, with no tire tracks to mar the scene. I felt like a bird soaring high above the pristine winter show. (Maybe not so high above—the windows in the observation car weren’t that far off the ground after all, but it was a different perspective.)
Obviously I’m not the first to enjoy the view of the world through a train window. Adrian Belew recorded the song “Swingline” about looking out of a train watching life in “the backyards of the Midwest.” I wonder, though, how many people find like I do that dilapidated city fixtures look so much cooler by train. Maybe Baltimore needs an Underworld City Train Tour that highlights places that could have been the sight of nefarious doings and tells stories about grave robberies that really happened in the city and ghost stories that probably didn’t. And we’d throw in something about Edgar Allen Poe just for good measure.
What d’ye think? Anyone who wants to be a tour guide could dress like Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper. Applicants should send pictures of themselves in their best steampunk/Jack the Ripper/tramp attire. And give me permission to post them…