Steppin Out, Hon
Baltimore rivals Boston in walkable history
by Carrie Steele
You dont have to be a history buff to find gems in Baltimores multi-layered past. Nearly a dozen walkable sites from the Inner Harbors hub beckon your exploration, and you dont have to chart your own course. The newest Baltimore urban trail, Heritage Walk, has mapped the way through Baltimores urban center. In walkable history, Baltimore now rivals Boston.
Leading the way is a 3.2-mile trail leading from the Inner Harbor into Little Italy, City Center and Jonestown. On this walk, you can taste Baltimore heritage in two ways: Uniformed urban park rangers lead guided tours that cover 1.5 miles of the walk. Or you can buy a brochure and map for $2 and head for points that you want to visit.
Walking is the classic way to tour new cities, says Bill Pencek, director of Baltimore City Heritage Area, a division of the mayors office that works to make Baltimores history more accessible to people.
When youre in Europe, you and I are like the Energizer Bunny, he explained. You hit the streets to experience the town.
You dont even have to set off solo.
Tour guide Alan Gephardt has been leading groups on the Heritage Walk since May. Coming to the job from Baltimore museums, he knows his history. Gephardt, who moves swiftly even on a scorching July mid-day, greets the postman in Historic Jonestown by name and knows his route like the back of his hand. Perhaps better.
Before the visitors center doors swing shut behind you, Gephardt begins unpeeling the layers of Baltimores past. His favorite era was the Great Fire, which ravaged 140 acres of downtown Baltimore in 1904.
It was really a blessing in disguise, said Gephardt, who recalls lore that the fire began with a mans cigar dropped in front of the ONeil building, which then exploded. The fire spread so that Italians living across the Jones Falls paraded a statue of Saint Anthony northward to safety, in prayer that the fire wouldnt jump the falls.
The Great Fire made way for progress. It allowed Baltimore to become what it is today. After the fire, they widened Pratt, could bury utilities, pipe Jones Falls and put in a more modern sewer system.
Historic Jonestown and Little Italy arent as polished as the Inner Harbor, but there reside as many historic sites and cultural scenes, such as Carroll Mansion home to both Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll and later Jewish immigrants who worked in a nearby sweatshop which housed both the citys wealthiest and poorest.
Along the way, youll feast on handy tidbits. Federal Hill was named for a big party once held there. The Constellation was used to capture illegal slave ships from Africa in the mid-1800s. Jones Falls once was a falls later pipelined to avoid disease.
The sidewalk trail transforms the city into a museum save for the noise, which on an early July day included Lion King theme Circle of Life playing from the amphitheatre, zooming trucks and jackhammers working on a building across the street.
Every 20 feet bronze disks mark the Heritage Walk route in 16 different languages. Ten story-signs tell tour-like tales and lore of specific sites. Youll rely on them if youre hoofing it without a tour guide when their season ends in November. If youre stuck on the Inner Harbor, this foot-tour may well reshape your concept of Baltimore.
We want to encourage visitors to realize that theres life beyond the Inner Harbor, said Pencek. Heritage Walk is designed to get people out beyond their comfort zones in the city in a safe and interesting way.
Penceks urban park rangers go through special training to learn more than history. How to lead tours and how to deal with panhandlers are among the topics theyre trained in.
Baltimores newest urban trail is better than the sum of its parts. Heritage Walk is the mortar unifying Baltimores ton of story-telling bricks.
You can go to any of these particular places, said Gephardt, but you dont get the connection. You dont get the whole story.
Its also how you with or without your out-of-town visitors can experience history and culture highlights without having to stay inside museums all day.
We have real heritage stories to tell, said Pencek. Were not second to Boston.
Like history everywhere, said Pencek. theres stuff we know, but we just take for granted.
Heritage Walk is one of Baltimores planned 16 Star-Spangled Banner trails. Most have thematic ties between historic sites. Among them are Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network trail; Fells Point Trail; and Maryland Civil War Trail. Pick up the trail at www.heritagewalks.org; tours start at the visitor center on Light Street in the Inner Harbor.