Illustration By Andy Snair
Imagine if Baltimore hosted an event that cost the city almost nothing and allowed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of folks to get outside and enjoy fresh air and modest cardiovascular exercise. Imagine an event that did not require expensive VIP seating, an event for which no trees were cut down. An event that produced only the noise made by small children on their bicycles and a few dogs barking, as they will do.
It’s called a Ciclovia, and it works on a very simple principle: close the streets to cars and open them to pedestrians and bikers. On a Saturday in early May, Baltimore had its fifth Ciclovia. And there will be more and more. We have seen the future.
The Ciclovia, which is Spanish for “bike path,” does not require big-name corporate sponsors. No carpetbaggers or scalawags came to town sniffing for easy pickings. The city didn’t get taken to the cleaners or become a national embarrassment as a result of it. It did not leave mountains of debris in its wake a la the Preakness infield or the square in Canton on St. Patrick’s Day. There did not appear to be any public drinking other than cold water, which some good souls were actually giving away.
It was dizzyingly wholesome. Even I liked it. Something that costs the city relatively little money and allows a wide level of participation by citizens seems like a good thing.
Closing the streets changes the tenor of the city. People speak to one another when they are afoot. They look their fellow citizens in the eye. Say hello. Smile. There was such diversity at the Ciclovia as one does not see at many upscale events whose price tag automatically eliminates the hoi polloi.
Last year, I sat next to a woman at a wedding on the Eastern Shore who was training to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain. There was a time when I would have rolled my eyes at this earnest gal. But there was something I envied about this. She would walk across much of France and Spain. I wanted to go, too.
A year before that, I was in France visiting some friends. We were sitting in a café in Roussillon-en-Provence having lunch and some pilgrims came down the lane. They had scallop shells on their hats (an ancient symbol of pilgrims) and walking sticks and dogs were following them. Everyone in that little café looked up at them and smiled. It was charming and sweet and I am not a person who often uses words like “charming” and “sweet.”
Maybe we all can’t make a pilgrimage, but surely we can walk around town. We could start with closing the main roads every Sunday morning from 9 to noon. Churches are said to object to such things. Keeps the faithful from worship. But as an old convent schoolboy, I can tell you Jesus was a great walker.
We are often told that we need more folks to move back into town to improve the quality of life here, provide us with tax revenue, yada, yada, yada. A city where walking on the scale of which I speak is possible would be precisely the sort of place that would attract residents. They would feel safe. Thousands of people strolling along are hardly threatening.
Walking would not require a federal program or administrative assistants. People start walking by the time they are a year old. It’s pretty simple. No training necessary.
Baltimore historically sustains itself with slogans. The City That Reads. The Greatest City in America. Believe. Charm City. What could be more charming than a City That Walks?
Long years ago over on Harford Road, John H. Wilbanks kept a used car lot that had a sign reading Honest John, the Walking Man’s Friend. He’s gone now. But I think of Honest John when I pass the vacant lot that was his site.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Baltimore were the walking man’s friend? Wouldn’t that look swell on a sign entering town?