Frank A. Mills

storytelling here

"Cousins" [(left to Right) Tommy, Joan. Me, The Duke of Duvall in Leakin Park. Baltimore]

A Mysterious Playground

As a child my city neighborhood was a mysterious playground full of shadowy, beckoning adventures. “The Hollow” with its monkey vine infested woods and minnow stream, the small dark, woody spur of Leakin Park inhabited no doubt by child-stealers, and, of course, the prerequisite witch who lived at the end of my block.

The mystery, however, was not limited to my neighborhood alone. Given the freedom to ride streetcars and explore the city, the mystery of Baltimore’s many neighborhoods, each unique, laid before me to be discovered. “The Avenue,” Pennsylvania Avenue; imagine the delights available to a white boy exploring this world-renown Baltimore neighborhood of Black culture. The crowded wharves of Fells Point, the melon-boats unloading produce from the Eastern Shore and points south, the banana boats from South America, passenger packets, too, heading to exotic ports, or the foot of Fleet full of boats carrying spices and coffee beans from around the world, just across the harbor from the sugar factory unloading sugar cane from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Then there were the city’s public markets brimming with everything from okra to she-crabs to Rockfish. I can still remember the taste of Utz’s potato chips purchased hot, fresh from the stall at Lexington Market, or codfish cakes, smothered in mustard resting between two saltine quarters. Corn Beef Row just around the corner from the notorious Block with its burlesque and strip joints, façades lined with enough come-ons to corrupt any red-blooded boy. Mount Vernon Place with the Washington Monument – 228 steps to be climbed, wondering with each step if Robert Mills, the designer, was a relative – museums to be scoped out, church spires, chiming bells, Orthodox “onion domes,” Polish & Greek shops along Broadway, Orthodox Jewish Park Heights, Little Italy, a cacophony of sounds and smells, ethnic delights in every corner; enough mystery – enough adventure – for a lifetime of exploration.

Although my memory of those long ago years may be a bit negligent, there is no question in my mind that what made those neighborhoods what they were in the mind of a young boy, was that they had a sense of place; each different, yet each the same.

It is this idea of sense of place that I remember as a young boy that has stated me on the road of discovering the sense of place in today’s neighborhoods. It almost makes me wonder why it is that some neighborhoods, no matter how hard they try, are unable to generate a sense of place, and why it is that others, once brimming with place, no longer have it? What is place? What is a sense of place? Can it be created by place making, or is something else required?

Alice in Wonderland exclaims, “A path suddenly shakes itself and goes a different way.” Cannot a neighborhood do this? Not to long ago the comic strip Non Sequitur started with, “The greatest adventures aren’t planned, they arrive unexpectedly.” Should not the same be said for a neighborhood? Is this not what a true neighborhood does best, sets us off on unexpected – unplanned for – adventures? Might we not ask if there are no neighborhood adventures waiting to unfold, is it still a neighborhood?

© Frank A. Mills, 2020
The original of this piece first appeared in the old online blog, "Urban Paradoxes," 2005

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