Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Drinking Hub of Baltimore's "Cultural Corridor"

I first moved to Baltimore in 2007 after transferring to MICA, and there is one particular public city space that I frequently see serving the function of opening up this city. The Mount Royal Tavern has been a staple midtown tradition for myself, as well as countless others before and behind me. When reflecting on my own personal experiences of Baltimore, I can think of no other location that has confronted me with a more interesting cross-section of Baltimore life. Meanwhile, this local watering hole is always full of surprises, managing to bring together all kinds of different people with no other reasons to congregate, crossing paths that could have otherwise remained parallel.

The Mount Royal Tavern has stood there for well over a hundred years; during prohibition days it was even a speakeasy. Unlike so many Baltimore establishments who close their doors on Sundays, the Tavern is open 365 days a year, sixteen hours a day. Situated at a junction joining several different Baltimore neighborhoods, and a stone’s throw from the light rail, the establishment is surrounded by multiple uses of the surrounding neighborhood, from residential to academic, business to cultural. “When stores, restaurants, bars, clubs, parks, and offices are sprinkled among residences, people have a neighborly feeling about their neighborhood, they go out and encounter one another on the streets and chat. They have a sense of their neighborhood as a “spot” or “place,” because of that bar’s distinctive clientele, or the citywide reputation of the pizza at that restaurant. Both business people and residents tend to have more commitment to and care for such neighborhoods than they do for single-use neighborhoods.” (Young 239)

The members of this surrounding residential and professional community would not be likely to stop and converse with each other when passing on the street, but the Tavern brings them together, dissolving the concept of “stranger” that tends to separate ourselves from our own neighbors. Gathered here you can find a most irregular assortment of regulars, appearing out of wide varieties of lifestyles, ages, races, and occupations. Stagehands, military, ex-military, MICA students, MICA alumni, musicians, schoolteachers, the unemployed, suit-clad lawyers, animal cops, even the owners of other bars; all sorts end up coming around. Even dogs are welcome, especially as they are generally better behaved than most human customers. There is also space for artwork on the back wall, with shows rotating each month and continually making gallery space a reality for many. And so, needless to say, it’s been impossible to avoid engaging in some of the most unexpectedly interesting conversations and interactions I’ve found in this city or nearly any other, for that matter.

Just the other day I found myself sitting at the bar, casually jotting down some project notes on an ordinary Sunday night. The white-haired gentleman to my right, engages me in conversation, and proceeds to enthusiastically inform me of this avant-garde musical performance going on that very night a mere couple blocks away. Fran was insistent I attend even before finding out I happen to be a sound artist, so naturally it was right up my alley. He claimed he could tell just by looking at me that this event would be something of interest to me. And despite the lingering homework due Monday I was planning on finishing later that night, I made it out to the show, and just as guaranteed, it was more than worth it. I even had the pleasure of being introduced to numerous performers and organizers behind this event, which can certainly be a valuable method of networking for someone in my particular areas of study.

Another night I stroll down to find a small crowd gathered around the front stoop, watching this fellow wailing away on some strange sort of home-made electronic instrument, a bit reminiscent of a washtub bass. It consisted of a long stick atop a little Pignose amp which was plugged up to a contact microphone receiving vibrations from a plastic strip running the height; I later found out the plastic strip he bent and plucked with his fingers was nothing more extravagant than the stiff plastic strips they use to bind huge palettes of commercial merchandise. When asked why he built it, or brought it out that night, was as simple as a shrug.

And so it is nights like these where my appreciation for the Tavern and the regulars that inhabit it turns profound. Nowhere else have I found such a random menagerie of strangers that frequently broaden my horizons and open up new aspects of this city to me.


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