Made in Baltimore

Undeterred by the grittiness of The Wire, Becky Barnicoat explores the city's DIY arts scene.

Baltimore comes with a question mark. As in: ''I've just been to Baltimore.'' ''Really? Baltimore?''

We are questioned by locals, too; as soon as they hear our accents, they ask, almost incredulously, ''What brings you to Baltimore?''

At the tip of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the city is 30 minutes from Washington DC by train but has yet to establish itself on the tourist trail. It began as a colonial trading outpost, became an industrial boom town and ended up collateral damage following the demise of home-grown American industry. Now east and west Baltimore, as seen in The Wire, are virtually no-go areas for those who don't live here and poverty has battered the city's confidence. But the hard times haven't knocked the spirit out of the place. The arts scene is thriving: as well as a host of museums and galleries, there's a vibrant grass-roots movement.

We begin our trip in Hampden, a taxi ride from our downtown hotel (there's virtually no public transport in Baltimore). Hampden is a hipster-fied, working-class community with a strip of boutiques, junk shops and cafes. There's Ma Petite Shoe (832 West 36th Street, www.mapetiteshoe.com), a shoe shop and chocolatier; Holy Frijoles (908 West 36th Street, www.holyfrijoles.net), a Tex-Mex joint with deals on tacos and pitchers; and True Vine (3544 Hickory Avenue, thetrue www.vinerecordshop.com), a basement treasure trove of vinyl. Just up the road, Woodberry Kitchen (2010 Clipper Park Road, www.woodberrykitchen.com) conjures up magical food from local suppliers.

Our first stop is Cafe Hon (1002 West 36th Street, www.cafehon.com), put on the map after its owner, Denise Whiting, pioneered ''Honfest'' (www.honfest.net). Hons, from ''Hey, hon!'', a classic greeting in Baltimore's working-class dialect, are girls frocked up in 1950s-style dresses and beehive hairdos. Every year, they parade on the strip, vying for the title Hon of the Year.

Despite the strength of the city's traditional art galleries, including the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, www.artbma.org) and the Walters Art Museum (600 North Charles Street, www.thewalters.org), the place everyone says we can't miss is the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, www.avam.org), dedicated to outsider artists. We spend almost four hours here, captivated by, in turn: the Biro landscapes of Vincent Nardone, who obsessively documents the US he left behind when he was imprisoned in 1976; the intricately realised world of Rocaterrania, by illustrator Renaldo Kuhler; and Wayne Kusy's rendering of the Lusitania in matchsticks.

Afterwards we wander to Federal Hill for crab quiche and root beer at Dangerously Delicious Pies (1036 Light Street, www.dangerouspies.com). Then it's back downtown to Geppi's Entertainment Museum (301 West Camden Street, www.geppismuseum.com), a shrine to comics and pop culture. There are so many museums and galleries in Baltimore it's hard to choose but we can't miss the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum (1601-3 East North Avenue, www.greatblacksinwax.org). It is a remarkable museum, both incredibly sad and full of hope. We begin in a re-creation of a slave ship that details the horrors of the Middle Passage, then move upstairs to look at the newest waxwork, Barack Obama.

We take another taxi towards Highlandtown, where we dodge sudden rain in The Laughing Pint (3531 Gough Street, www.laughingpint.com), a blink-and-you'll-miss-it bar with ping pong, board games and a heavenly Italian deli across the road where you can buy lunch.

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The weather forces us to take shelter down the road at the Patterson Bowl (2105 Eastern Avenue, www.pattersonbowl.com) for some duckpin (similar to tenpin) bowling. Then we scurry further west into Fells Point for dinner. We've been warned that gentrification has sucked some life from the area but we enjoy eating peanuts with a group of builders at Henninger's Tavern (1812 Bank Street, www.henningerstavern.com), followed by shrimp and grits at Peter's Inn (504 South Ann Street, www.petersinn.com) and finally a shot at the Birds of a Feather whisky bar (1712 Aliceanna Street, www.abs.net/~scotchjh) before heading for bed.

The heart of Baltimore's art scene beats around the Maryland Institute College of Art (1300 West Mount Royal Avenue, www.mica.edu) in Station North. We start with Area 405 (405 East Oliver Street, www.area405.com), a 150-year-old warehouse-turned-studio and gallery on a crumbling street that fans of The Wire might recognise.

In Baltimore, entrepreneurial artists make things happen. Load of Fun (120 West North Avenue, www.loadoffun.net) used to be Lombard Office Furniture until artist Sherwin Mark bought it and knocked out some of the sign's letters. Now it is artists' studios, a gallery and the home of the Single Carrot theatre company (www.singlecarrot.com). Sherwin asks us if we've had a crab cake yet - a Baltimore speciality - and tells us we have to come with him to The Dizz (300 West 30th Street, www.thedizzbaltimore.com) for the best in town. We climb into the front seat of his truck and he turns to us. ''You want to see the real Baltimore?'' We look unsure. ''It's where 75 per cent of the population lives - it's important.'' We watch as the city slips between personas - now rich, now dirt poor - and then it's just poor, for miles. The beautiful row houses are shadows of their former selves.

''It's like seeing the fall of the Roman empire,'' Sherwin says, sadly.

After crab cakes, we head back to Station North, where we've arranged to meet Bret and Frank of the Baltimore City Paper in the Club Charles (1724 North Charles Street, www.theclubcharles.com), a dive bar where we're warned not to drink beer on tap. We're soon heading for dive bar No. 2, The Mount Royal Tavern (1204 West Mount Royal Avenue). ''What are you doing in Baltimore?'' asks the bartender, as we drink cans of Natty Boh beer and make out a homage to the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling and mice on the floor.

After stopping for 9 per cent home-brewed beer in the Brewer's Art (1106 North Charles Street, www.thebrewersart.com), a bar in a beautifully preserved row house, we arrive at the H&H Building (405 West Franklin Street), a camping supplies shop with six floors of warehouse space above it. Up we go to an opening at the Nudashank gallery (nudashank.blogspot.com), where gallery watchers sip bottles of beer and survey the paintings. It's only when I go to the loo that I realise the gallery is in someone's flat. A group of girls are sitting on a sofa watching TV and there's a kitchen piled with washing-up.

The next night we find ourselves in another flat, this one known as The Annex Theatre (419 East Oliver Street, annextheater.x10hosting.com), where the local Effervescent Collective performs an inspired gender-bending version of Dirty Dancing. Bedroom doors lead off the stage.

The Baltimore arts scene is composed of a loyal and formidably proactive crowd, setting up theatres, galleries and music venues wherever they can. Here, in Baltimore, you have to do it yourself.

United Airlines flies to Baltimore for about $1590, from Sydney to San Francisco (13hr 20min), then Baltimore (5hr). Melbourne passengers fly United to Sydney to connect. Fare is low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov, costing $US14 ($14.20) (more details at www.cbp.gov/travel). For more information on Baltimore see capitalregionusa.org.

- Guardian News & Media

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