The blight of progress that afflicts all American cities is eating away at Baltimore, pride of what its lamented sage, H. L. Mencken, always referred to as Maryland Free State.
Many of the fine old houses downtown have been razed to make way for skyscraper office buildings and high-rise apartments. Others have been cut up inside to make offices for doctors and hot-plate living quarters. A whole new population has arrived in the city proper. The Easter Parade on fashionable Charles Street is a thing, of the past. The first-class restaurants that survive may be counted on the fingers of one hand.
But there is something in Baltimore that no housewrecker's ball or expressway builder's bulldozer can get at. It is a quality of mind and of spirit, a way of thinking that has long commanded the respect of logicians everywhere in the world.
Baltimore's brand of logic works out this way: Last spring there were some virtuous mutterings against the world-famous (among sailors) striptease joints of East Baltimore Street. David Wallace, then director of the planning council of the Greater Baltimore Committee, promptly issued a statement. He defended the strip-joint area as "an important part of Baltimore, which I would not want to change." He added that, although the strippers' appeal was obviously directed at man's "saucier impulses," they had "a needed liveliness which many cities lack."
The same kind of straight thinking was demonstrated by a Baltimore magistrate who decided cases involving charges of indecent exposure by the strippers with one of the simplest yet most admirable devices to be found in the annals of jurisprudence. This magistrate brought with him to the bench an empty penny matchbox. Then he called for the costume alleged to have been indecent. If he could fit it into the matchbox, he would hold the defendant to be guilty as charged. If the costume could not be squeezed into the little box, he would throw the case out of court without hearing further evidence from either side.
Baltimore does not resist progress solely for the sake of resisting. It tolerates rebuilding as a necessary evil except where the advantages of the new are outweighed by the sentimental attachments for the old. For instance, when the course of an expressway was found to be aiming at a particularly well-loved block of old houses, such a hue and cry went up that the builders had to plan on curving the speedway around the block in question.
But this was nothing compared to the public indignation of a few years ago when there was some talk of demolishing the old Pimlico Race Course and moving the ancient horse race known as the Preakness to Laurel, Md. In letters to the newspapers and in barroom rallies it was made clear to proponents of the Laurel plan that blood would run in the streets if anybody tried to take the Preakness away.
This was as it should be, for the Preakness was first run at Pimlico back in 1873 and is one of Baltimore's dearest treasures. Moreover, given fair weather (so that whole families may picnic in the infield), it is the climax of the most civilized day at the races in America.
Preakness Day resembles nothing so much as a great and amiable family reunion. The crowd is drawn mostly from Baltimore and Maryland, but high public officials come up from Washington and horseplayers of taste and refinement make pilgrimages from distant points.
The Preakness crowd is unique. Although it begins to assemble at 9:30 in the morning and to start eating and drinking at once, there is no wild running about or raucous shouting or fist-fighting or falling down as may be observed, say, at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. The exemplary behavior of Preakness patrons has been attributed to the fact that Maryland rye whisky, given a base of crab meat and fried chicken, is known to have the effect of steadying the gait, sharpening the vision and clearing the mind of all but the most kindly thoughts.