The city and the city

I’ve lived in Baltimore for 13 years and, prior to December of 2022, had barely seen any of it.

A Baltimore city map with some streets I'd biked highlighted.
In teal, the streets I'd biked prior to Dec. 2022, which is not much smaller than the places I'd also driven.

We moved here in 2010 with two kids already and celebrated the move with another one a few years after. The kids brought us all over the place and naturally determined many of those destinations. Outdoors, this included local playgrounds and well-known sites like the zoo, Cylburn Arboretum, and Sherwood Garden; indoors, we frequented downtown destinations like the Walters Art Museum. These are all places that give to people of every age, whose beauty and appeal grows with exposure and one’s changing perspective. There are also many destinations that in our experience were more time-bound or whose appeal wanes across visits (whether universally or just for us): Port Discovery, the science center, and the National Aquarium. Apart from the kids, recommendations and events with friends from work, church, and our neighborhood brought us to restaurants and a handful of other places across the city. Live in a place long enough, and you’ll have visited or intentionally passed over most of the places you’d find on a “What to do in X” list for your city, and collected enough second-tier, off-list places to feel reasonably at-home.

But your own particular collection is, inevitably, a small part only of any city. You will not come to know the whole of it by ordinary routine. What strikes me in thinking over the complete geographic area is how foreign parts of it can feel, and continue to feel, well after we’d established ourselves here. There were many places I visited that even gave me a kind of low-grade anxiety and discomfort. Sometimes this was because an area was ugly or run-down; the MVA in Reisterstown sits in my mind as one of these places, a building next to a large ugly parking lot on a treeless strip of one of the city’s many stroads. But the discomfort doesn’t come only from ugliness or decay; it comes also from mere unfamiliarity. Good friends of ours once lived in Woodlawn, on the far SW side of the city, and our drives there would take us through Gwynn Falls and Liberty Heights, whole areas that felt unfriendly and unpleasant and vaguely dangerous. We met once for a picnic at a playground in Leakin Park, and I remember thinking or maybe just feeling, can you really have a playground here? Of course, they didn’t share my private feelings about these places, which they knew well. The main difference is that it was new to me.

Experiences like these have something to say about the granularity of familiarity. The city contains places I know well and love, and unpleasant places, and places I’ve never been to. Yet all are gathered together under a single name, Baltimore. It is both the name of the city I live in, and the name of the tiny portion of the city I know. And that tiny portion is inevitably limited, confined to the overlapping circles of the must-see, personal recommendations, and happenstance. How much of Baltimore was I missing from this limited view?

This is all written after the fact, but these are the kinds of thoughts that I’m sure were in my head when I first came across The site’s mission is to “encourage you to take a small action against going where you’d normally go”, which it does by pulling your cycling rides from Strava and visualizing and quantifying how many unique miles of an area’s streets you’ve traveled. A natural goal is to visit them all. I must have come across it on Twitter, since two people I follow had both done it: one, a Baltimore city councilman, and the other, some guy from St. Louis. The project immediately appealed to me. What better way to close the gap between the city and the city? Its answer to the question of how to break out of ruts is “systematic exploration”.

So in December of 2022 I started fiddling with the idea. And over Christmas at my in-laws I subscribed to Wandrer (it’s cheap, $30 / year), and then walked into a bike store in a St. Louis suburb and bought a low-end quality road bike. I told the guy who was helping me what I was planning to do and he told me, “Oh, I’ve done that!” It turns out I was talking to the most-traveled guy in St. Louis, who’d literally ridden every street. Small world, and surely a sign that I was on the right path.

But why bike? Why not simply drive every street in the city, or purposefully seek out highlights from distant corners of the city? Partly family is older now and finding time for and getting consensus on outings is more difficult. But more than that, bikes are unique in providing speed and flexibility while maintaining intimacy. I have more to say about that.