Literary Hub

5 Reasons a Writer Should Move to Baltimore


You Have to Trust a City That Can Make “Ain’t it Hard Just to Live?” Sound Beautiful

I came to Baltimore almost a year ago, happily, but with half a lifetime’s worth of suspicion: I grew up in and outside of D.C., where our nearest neighbor city was sometimes the butt of dismissive jokes, where you know how Baltimore people are could be considered sufficient explanation for someone’s odd behavior. Before I had ever been to the city, my mother had read me Countee Cullen’s poem “Baltimore,” and though part of the point of the poem and most of the reason my mother was reading it to me was that the poem’s inciting incident—a child being called nigger by a stranger—could and did happen everywhere, as I got older and read Baltimore news, it seemed not incidental that the poem had been set in Baltimore, a city with a deep, structured, and intentional racial divide.

Though I made it to the city as one of the last seven people in the US who had never seen an episode of The Wire, I knew there was no shortage of pop culture that painted Baltimore as bleak. I made a “Baltimore” playlist to push myself through the last days of packing up my house and found that, aside from the occasional peppy disruption of the Hairspray soundtrack and Elizabeth Cotten’s wordless but fond-feeling ode, the city’s musical representation made it out to be a place that had depressed or eluded Bobby Bare, Randy Newman, Nina Simone, Adam Duritz, Mal Blum, and Audra McDonald. But the persistence of Baltimore as singularly heartbreaking in the art people make about it—including The Wire, which I did finally get around to watching—is its own kind of argument for writing in the city. It takes a place that can make you love it to break your heart, and sometimes it takes finding the words for a specific kind of heartbreak to know what you were trying to say.

There are Gorgeous and Cozy Spaces to Write

If you’re not looking for heartbreak, the good news is that Baltimore also has plenty of straight-up beauty. The city is full of writing spaces where you can be visually and intellectually sustained but also be unbothered. I lived for months across the street from the Peabody Library, purportedly the inspiration for the library in the animated Beauty and the Beast. From Tuesday through Saturday, it’s free and open to the public, spectacularly gorgeous, quiet, and full of old books. Occasionally, parents wanting to photograph their college students with a scenic backdrop or couples viewing the space as a potential wedding venue wander in and have to communicate in whispers or charades, which is both sweeter and more likely to give me a stray observation worthy of the page than the interviews and awkward first dates that tend to distract me when I try to write in coffee shops. If you prefer to do your writing in a coffee shop, though, I recommend one of the city’s bookstore adjacent choices: Bird in Hand and Red Emma’s both have cafés where you can caffeinate and also eat, read, buy books, and occasionally catch events. If you’re not tied to your laptop, Baltimore also has multiple free art museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, where you can park yourself with a notebook and have a writing day punctuated by visual inspiration.

It’s Full of Readings and Literary Events

Perhaps the best evidence that Baltimore is a writer-friendly city is how many writers come to town. Baltimore has a few remaining big booksellers and a lot of well-loved independent bookstores—along with Red Emma’s and Bird in Hand, there’s Bird in Hand’s sister store The Ivy and Atomic Books. The city is also home to a dozen universities, all with visiting speakers or reading series. The Pratt Library and City Lit Project bring writers to town year round, and the Baltimore Book Festival happens annually along the waterfront, bringing both marquee and emerging writers to town for a multi-day event. In the past year, readers who have visited include Colson Whitehead, Lorrie Moore, Claudia Rankine, Roxane Gay, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lauren Groff, Natasha Trethewey, Laura Van Den Berg, Eugenia Kim, Tayari Jones, and Jorie Graham. If you made it to one of our Writing Seminars readings at Johns Hopkins, you got to hear gorgeous words and also walk away with a limited-run screenprinted broadside for each writer.

For all of the gratifying institutional support of literary culture, there’s also a lot of informal literary culture—it’s the kind of city where living-room salons have loyal audiences, and some of the best readings I’ve heard since I got here have been in those salons. The busy visiting writers calendar is only a small part of Baltimore’s arts scene, which also includes thriving local theatre, music, and a visual arts community that include both world class museums and an active makers culture.

A few months ago, I waited in a long line for half an hour on a snow day, only to discover I was person 205 hoping to hear a string quartet play a free concert, themed around songs with secrets, at The Peabody. “Are these people famous?” asked someone in line behind me. “They’re Baltimore famous,” said the friend they’d come with. Along with a few other stragglers, I waited long enough to be invited in once the crowd was settled, and watched a man in the standing room only audience hoist his small daughter onto his shoulders to see over the heads of hundreds of people as the string quartet played an adaptation of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” It felt good to be in a city where so many people wanted to be in that room.

Baltimore Won’t Let You Lie to Yourself About This Country

You maybe knew that we weren’t done with heartbreak. The inequality in Baltimore is stark and unavoidable. When you’re new in a city as a black person, every black person even a few years older than you has familial advice for you, and when you work for a major institution in a city, you can tell a lot about the institution’s relationship to the city by whether, when you tell them where you work, those older black people say “Look at you!” or “Are they treating you okay up there?”

Though I do find myself well-treated, I am also not ignorant of the history that makes the second reaction so much more common than the first. Baltimore has a long history of segregation, redlining, and division, and it’s not hard to trace that to problems visible in the city today: crime, bad policing, abandoned buildings, whole abandoned blocks, abandoned people, children asked to live around all of that and attend schools that sometimes lack heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. But Baltimore is a city that history and policy built, and to live where you don’t have to see it, or see how much is lost with race and class stratification, is only to know less about the country.

Faced with this reality, Baltimore has developed a thriving, and often successful, culture of activism. If you’re new to the city, there are a lot of opportunities to listen to and learn from the people already doing the work. If you want to know more about the history of the specific space of Baltimore, Stacia Brown’s radio program The Rise of Charm City does an amazing job of giving both intimate human stories and broad context. The recently relaunched Baltimore Beat is working to cover the city and maintain an active independent journalism culture. There are arts-specific opportunities for volunteering and advocacy, including Writers in Baltimore Schools, where volunteer writers can hear Baltimore teenagers speak for themselves and help them make space in the world for their work.

If You Need Water, There’s Water. If You Need a Break, There’s The Whole Eastern Seaboard

When I was living far away and said I missed the East Coast, sometimes I meant I missed racial diversity and seasoned food, and sometimes I meant I missed being close to family, and sometimes I meant I missed Amtrak and the ocean. Baltimore is not quite beachfront, but the harbor makes good viewing on the days when you just need to see water, and while as a vegetarian, Baltimore’s famed crab culture is lost on me, I am charmed by both the Chesapeake Bay and the local seasoning named for it. (Pro tip: if you too arrive in Baltimore as a vegetarian feeling left out by the reverence for crab cakes, you can find good veggie versions at the restaurant in the BMA, and at a local vegan soul food place.)

But if being close to the ocean is not enough, the good thing about being in Baltimore is that you can easily get to the beach, or pretty much anywhere along the Atlantic. Writers are famously restless, and Baltimore is within a short distance of so much: the Maryland and Delaware beaches are an easy day trip, and both the Eastern Seaboard and every major city on the East Coast are accessible by a bus or train ride. It’s nice to be able to hop on a train and be in New York for an event. It’s also nice to know I can hop back on a train and be just about three hours away from a city I’m already always anxious to come home to.

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