Baltimore may not be one of those cities at the top of everyone’s list to visit, but with two separate pride festivals, a queer film festival, a Miss Gay Baltimore Pageant and a thriving gaybourhood, it’s certainly one that should be. Still not gay enough for you? Oh yeah, it’s also the hometown and stomping ground where John Waters and Divine collaborated on many of their campy films like Pink Flamingos and Polyester.
Unfortunately for the city, the image conveyed by such TV shows as Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire is not entirely off-base. Baltimore is one of the few American cities to see a rise in its murder rate in 2013, and crime in general remains an ongoing problem. But downtown Baltimore is experiencing a cultural and architectural renaissance, and there’s a reason it’s nicknamed Charm City.
Baltimore is easy to navigate by foot, bike or public transit, including the Charm City Circulator that bills itself as “Fast, Friendly and Free.” In 2012, Baltimore saw its first population increase in more than six decades with just less than three million residents in the greater metropolitan area. It’s a friendly place where it’s easy to chat up the locals, but just make sure you refer to them as Baltimorians, not Baltimorons.
The central Inner Harbor area is tourist central, where visitors can explore one of the many historical naval vessels, the magnificent National Aquarium or just add to their T-shirt collection at the Hard Rock Café. As well, both the Orioles (baseball) and the Ravens (football) have stadiums side-by-side in the downtown core.
Swirling around the waterside is the newly developed Harbor East area with upscale hotels and shops. Further along the trendy cobblestoned streets of Fells Point, once a favorite entertainment spot for sailors, is a pleasant mix of tourists and artists.
Adjacent to this, in a city of neighbourhoods, is Little Italy, one of the older established areas that retained its European splendour with outdoor cafes and colourful mural facades. On the south-western reaches of the Inner Harbor is the neighbourhood of Federal Hill, its small-town vibe centered on the bustling Cross Street Market and Federal Hill Park, offering the best views of the Inner Harbor.
Heading north from the Inner Harbor up along Charles Street provides a great opportunity to see architecture that dates back two centuries, with nearly 300 buildings registered as historical. But once you hit the George Washington Monument towering high above in Mount Vernon, you’re not in Kansas any longer. This section of Charles Street is gay town, lined with quaint cafes, independent clothing retailers, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Club Hippo (clubhippo.com) is one of the oldest gay bars in town and one of the largest. Kitty corner to Club Hippo, on the opposite side of Eager Street, is Grand Central (centralstationpub.com), another multifaceted bar with a dance club and pool tables. Within a few blocks there are other options to get your gay on like at the Drinkery and their jukebox jives, Jay’s piano bar, the African-American Club Bunns and the historic leather bar Leon’s (leonsbaltimore.tripod.com) that’s been operating at the same location for more than 50 years. And for those who want to boogie into the wee hours, there’s always Club 1722.
For all its stuffy historical significance, Baltimore retains a gritty, urban edge, one of the driving forces behind its thriving arts community. Along Charles Street further north past Penn Station is Station North, an area in transition, but well on its way to total gentrification. It’s the perfect off-the-radar locale for those looking to explore, rife with dingy gay bars adjacent to hipster haunts, and where art studios and fringe theatres reside alongside vacant historical landmarks.
The Charles Theatre art house multiplex offers year-round entertainment, including being the host venue for the annual Maryland Film Festival (md-filmfest.com) in May and the music and arts Scapescape festival (facebook.com/bmore.scapescape) on Labour Day weekend. Among the signs for pop-up punk shows and independent theatre productions that adorn the decrepit shop fronts on either side of the street is Sofi’s, serving the best crepes in town, or so the rumour goes. Across the street is Club Charles (clubcharles.us), a gay-friendly watering hole stuck in the 1950s, a frequent haunt of John Waters, with other celebrity visits by Nicolas Cage, Iggy Pop, Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp.
In the northern reaches of the city is Hampden, a neighbourhood often portrayed in John Waters’ films, known for its independent retail shops, dining spots and local pubs. Walk along 36th Street where Hairspay and Pecker were filmed, and where Café Hon still epitomizes Waters’ kitschy Baltimore. And you can imagine how easy it is for locals to find their six-degrees-of-separation with the famed filmmaker. Barry Werner, owner of the Scarborough Fair Bed & Breakfast says, “I’ve been an extra in his movie A Dirty Shame and we crossed paths at a local restaurant where he was having a martini.” Lee Johnson of the Lord Baltimore Hotel divulged that there’s a photo collage of Waters’ works on each floor, while Susannah Siger, owner of the quaint Ma Petite Shoe Café, recalls a scene from Pecker being filmed in the alley behind her place where the rats were making whoopee. The locals love their city, and are more than happy to share their stories: Siger loves the fact that “It’s a livable city that’s still inspired by its working-class roots.” Werner has similar sentiments: “It feels more like a collection of small towns rather than a big city, with a great feeling of civic pride from the residents in each neighbourhood.” Perhaps this is why some have given it yet another nickname, Smalltimore.
One of the more likely places to catch Waters is at Atomic Books in Hampden, where he continues to get his fan mail delivered and ventures in to pick it up regularly. Waters was recently quoted as saying, “My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?” Putting this statement to the test, he recently completed a hitchhiking journey across the US from Baltimore to San Francisco, and plans to turn his adventures into a book, tentatively titled Carsick.
This year the queer quotient is being bumped up even more. The official Pride festivities (baltimorepride.org, June 13-22) will run two weekends back to back with 10 full days of programming. Events will be centered in the Mount Vernon area and include Twilight on the Terrace and a Block Party. QFest (bmorequeer.org, June 12-15) overlaps the festivities with LGBT film screenings, readings and exhibitions. Later on in the season check out Artscape (artscape.org, July 18-20) in Bolton Hill, the “largest free arts festival in America,” or Black Pride (blackpridebaltimore.org) in October. For indie music lovers, there’s HampdenFest or the Ground Zero Festival. Also keep an eye out for the queer cabaret Charm City Kitty Club (charmcitykittyclub.com).
Another must-visit is the American Visionary Art Museum (avam.org) with its larger-than-life statue of the legend herself, Divine, and for the free outdoor movies on Thursday nights, not to mention all the LGBT-themed exhibitions and programming.
Waters still maintains a residence here as does Divine, whose gravesite is at the Prospect Hill Cemetery in nearby Towson. Says Daniel McEvily, editor of Baltimore Gay Life: “What I absolutely love about Baltimore is its gritty heart and soul. The city and its people are unpretentious, hardworking and, above all else, quirky.”
Chingale: Great date night cgeno.com
Charleston: Farm to table fresh with great homemade fare charlestonrestaurant.com
Woodberry Kitchen: Nearly everything is local and organic woodberrykitchen.com
Sobo Café: They make their own mayo, breads and desserts sobocafe.net
Regi’s American Bistro: A rooftop garden with local ingredients regisamericanbistro.com
Pazo: Well-crafted tapas pazorestaurant.com
Clementine: Go for charcuterie and pork chops clementinebaltimore.com
Four Seasons fourseasons.com/baltimore
Brookshire Suites brookshiresuites.com
Scarborough Fair B&B scarboroughfairbandb.com
Lord Baltimore Hotel lordbaltimorehotel.com
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center glccb.org
Baltimore Out Loud baltimoreoutloud.com
Baltimore Gay Life baltimoregaylife.com