I pick a destination in Maryland by a method slightly less random than throwing a dart at a map. I see a photo, almost buried in the results that pop up as I search for something else, a little thumbnail square floating in a sea of other squares that for some reason catches my attention. The photo is of a linear park that’s more river than park, a shining ribbon of water gliding through a city. The city, I find out when I click, is Frederick.
And so I go to Frederick, just slightly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s hardly an obscure place (Wikipedia tells me it’s “a part of the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is part of a greater Washington-Baltimore-Arlington, DC-MD-VA-WV-PA Combined Statistical Area” and that it is the “second-largest incorporated city in Maryland, behind Baltimore”) but I have no preconceived notions of it, no idea of what it will be like, and no image of it in my head except for that shimmery, watery park.
This is why, when I walk out of the parking garage and into the streets of downtown Frederick, I am not expecting to find myself in a place that could have been designed based on a list of everything I love in a city. When I try to break down the individual elements that would be on this list, it sounds superficial. I like historic buildings, mostly dating from the 18th or 19th century, mostly small in scale, with facades of brick or rough wood shingles, painstakingly preserved but not so perfectly repaired that you can’t see their age and imperfections. I like colorful shutters with antique holdbacks, painted doors, and rusty metal stars adorning exterior walls. I like small storefronts with well-crafted signs and enticing window displays, and brick sidewalks punctuated by trees and historic markers. I like quiet alleys connecting busy roads, and displays of flowers, and parks that show up just when you want to sit down, and places where people can gather but also where they can feel comfortable all alone. I like Main Streets that go on for blocks and blocks, intersecting with equally promising streets at seemingly endless corners. I like the sorts of places about which an official local tourism website could say, as Frederick’s does, that this is “where hip meets historic every day” and it’s so true that I don’t even cringe. Much.
As I turn the corners of Frederic’s tree-shaded streets, invisible birds are singing. A tiny yellow ladybug alights on my jacket. People I pass seem to sort of smile, but not fully, and I slip into Yankee-in-the-South panic mode: am I in smile territory already?
I have certainly crossed the line where memories of the Revolution and the War of 1812 begin to be overtaken by those the Civil War. I pass the National Museum of Civil War Medicine; as promised, its historic horrors are enveloped in hipness. There are comfortable coffee shops, tattoo parlors adorned with vintage lettering, a store that sells only infinite varieties of soda, a cake bakery from which wafts an almost palpable cloud of sweetness, and one of those fancy olive oil tasting places that seem to have sprung up recently in every American town larger than two blocks long. It could easily be insufferable if it wasn’t tethered to reality by occasional patches of peeling paint, showing aged brick beneath, and those narrow alleys, the shortcuts only locals know, where the unpolished backs and sides of homes and businesses lie exposed.
Residential and commercial areas blend together, with one turn around a corner revealing another strip of niche boutiques and the next a row of houses, each one possessing some little detail that sets it apart from its neighbor. In the midst of this overdose of charm, there is an especially picturesque two-block shopping district, where the buildings seem to stand especially straight. This is Everedy Square, named for the Everyedy Company which once manufactured its eponymous bottle cappers here, and Shab Row, named for what was once an African American residential district, home to tinkers and artisans, that slid into disrepair and was derided as a slum. Or perhaps, as some say, the name came from Sharbro or Sherbro Island, located off Sierra Leone, the birthplace of the enslaved people who once lived here. I couldn’t find a definitive answer, and perhaps the exact truth is not known, because sometimes when hip meets historic, hip wins.
This, I guess, is why I’m really drawn to cities that look like this. Underneath all the pretty things, the painted doors and gaslights and brick sidewalks, there are stories that may be partially forgotten but can never be lost. And even though I don’t have enough time to spend here to even begin to think about them all, I can sense them in the street grid, in the architecture, in the layers of peeling paint.
I walk until my feet, newly re-introduced to sandals after being hidden away for New England’s long winter, start to blister. Then I decide I should probably go to the spot that inspired my impulsive stop in Frederick. The shining ribbon of water is called Carroll Creek Park. It extends for four or five long blocks. It looks like an expensive ornament, an outsize beautification project, but it was born as a flood control project in response to devastating flooding in the 1970s. The massive tunnels channeling water away from downtown are hidden beneath the streets; above ground, ducks bob happily beneath little pedestrian bridges that curve above the water’s surface. On either side of the water, there are brick walkways and benches, restaurants and public art. The quiet of the morning has fully evolved into afternoon bustle, and people are everywhere, eating at outdoor tables, sitting beside the pacified creek, or, like me, just wandering by on their way to somewhere else.