The memory of that rainy afternoon goes back nearly 30 years now, but it warms the heart in a wintry emotional season in the city of Baltimore. The memory’s about Artscape, which we celebrate this weekend.
This city could use a good celebration.
We’ve become consumed by our aberrations. We tabulate the latest homicide count and imagine it characterizes an entire metropolis. It does not. The city is also neighborhoods pulsing with life, and kids playing games in municipal parks, and outdoor cafes and strolls along the extended waterfront.
The annual midtown gathering opens this Friday, around Mount Royal Avenue near the University of Baltimore and the Maryland Institute College of Art, with food and fashion, and art and crafts and music and, most especially, the glad vibe created by an estimated 350,000 people who show up every year.
Sometimes, even in the rain.
One time, must be around 1990, at Mount Royal and Dolphin, the rain fell so heavily one afternoon that news announcers on the radio were telling everybody to stay home, forget about going to Artscape.
But people already there started dancing in the street. It started with about a dozen black kids, stepping lightly to music with a vaguely Caribbean beat. In moments, people were drifting out of the Mount Royal Tavern and the MICA buildings – white and black and Asian people, young and old – and they were laughing and smiling and joining the original dancers.
The rain picked up now, and so did the number of people dancing. They were strangers suddenly holding hands, forming a long line, punctuating their dance steps with hand claps, and everybody’s clothes were soaked clear through and nobody seemed to notice.
They looked like a dance troupe composed of all of Western civilization. And that’s what a city is – a microcosm of all of humanity, a great mix where everybody belongs if they only bother to show up.
We have a city, called Baltimore, where people have allowed themselves to be intimidated by isolated criminal behavior. You hear it all the time now – people who pronounce themselves afraid to go downtown. Of course, these are usually people who haven’t been downtown in years anyway.
Artscape’s our reminder that we transcend our worst headlines. Just look around and feel comforted by all the friendly faces. These people happen to share a municipal community, and they want the same things everybody wants: security for their families, safety in their neighborhoods – and the sense that they’re not alone.
Every community has its problems. Artscape gives us a weekend to set them aside. Partly, it’s a celebration of the city itself. Mostly, it’s a celebration of each other, a moment when we let ourselves come out of the rain and enjoy the sunlight, whatever the weather itself may bring.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.