Visit Baltimore? Artist Jose Villarubia tells us why…

Nov 20, 2008 by

When picking vacation destinations, Baltimore doesn’t naturally come to mind, but with it’s close proximity to to Washington DC it’s an easy road trip from anywhere on the East Coast. Baltimore offers a thriving arts community, a booming redeveloped Harbor and a welcoming gay scene. Oh, and there’s that whole John Waters thing too.

I decided to find out myself if a long weekend in Baltimore would be worth it and luckily, I had the best guide to Baltimore one could ask for. Just a few hours after meeting artist and educator Jose Villarubia, I began to refer to him as the Mayor of Mount Vernon (Baltimore’s gayborhood) – everyone seemed to know him. As we walked and Jose shared his thoughts on Baltimore a FedEx driver chased after us to deliver the latest Spiderman comic: Jose has been a colorist on popular comic books like Batman, Spiderman, Xmen and Captain America.

Jose showed us the local gay bars, took us to terrific performances at CenterStage and Baltimore Theatre Project and gave us the inside scoop on why you should plan your next weekend getaway in the home of the Baltimore Crabs.

Jose, why do you think people have misconceptions about Baltimore?
I don’t encounter misconceptions as much as I encounter complete and utter ignorance. People only know the name. Most people that I meet that don’t know anything about Baltimore – if they know anything its John Waters and that’s about it.

people here don’t size other people up. Because living in Baltimore is not a sign of status like it is in that other city

Baltimore is wonderful for people who appreciate cities with specific personalities, that like architecture–especially 19th century architecture–and for people who like cultural venues. And for the tourist at large, we have a lot of things for different ages and interests.

Baltimore is a friendly city. As you saw in the street, people are generally friendly. And its very affordable.

It’s a very beautiful town – people don’t know that. It has a center that is very well preserved and its full of very interesting monumental architecture. Mount Vernon is the only residential monumental square in the country. There are many monumental squares on the east coast, but no one lives there. In this one we do. And that’s nice.

It seems like Mount Vernon is the cultural hub of the city
There are cultural venues all over Baltimore, but they are focused mostly on Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon is where the city began. We have the Washington Monument and it sort of spread from there. All the best things in Baltimore are around the monument. The museums, the restaurants, the galleries, the gays. All of them. So Mount Vernon is the cultural district, the most gay friendly of all the neighborhoods, it is also full of students because it is packed with schools and universities like the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the Maryland Institute College of Art, University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland. So that colors the climate of the city and in particular it colors the climate of Mount Vernon.

As an artist you must love all the great museums here, is there one we shouldn’t miss?
The Visionary Arts Museum is probably the most unique museum in the country because it is artwork done by “outsider artists”, people who have no formal training or are in prison or mental institutions. It’s sort of a derivation of folk art and we have this absolutely astonishing museum that is really fitting with Baltimore because of its eccentric nature. But art lovers or not, it is just an incredible place to go. Really fun, really original. When I have people in for one day I take them to the Visionary and its a guaranteed success cause it is so strange, and fun, and very beautiful; it’s not ugly. Its mad, literally, because a lot of the artwork is produced by mad people. It’s an incredible concept. It’s within walking distance of Harbor Place.

If you had a friend in for a long weekend, where would you take them?
If the weather was good, I’d take them to the Harbor, to the Aquarium, go shopping, and take them to the Visionary. We’d probably have lunch at Harbor Place which has like a million places to eat and I would take the water taxi to Fells Point.

Fells Point used to be the neighborhood where the fishermen lived. It is very quaint, very charming, full of little teeny eccentric stores and bars and restaurants. Edith Massey who used to star in the John Waters films had her store there (the store is still open even after she died). She was always there welcoming everyone “Hi Hon!”, always. She was always working to make a buck. I loved her. We’d grab a beer or coffee there and then head back to Mount Vernon.

Dinner in Mount Vernon. Friday drinks at Central.

The next day we’d walk around Mount Vernon, where I live. I’d show them the Walters Art Museum, the Peabody Library which is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen. I would show them the first Catholic Cathedral in the US, show them the Pratt Library (first in the country). We would eat in Mount Vernon. Evening to see a show at the Theatre Project or Center Stage or The Hippodrome, which is fantastic, one of the many theatres here. And then after that, out Dancing to the Hippo.

On Sunday morning, I’d take them to the Stable for Brunch, which is in my opinion the best brunch in Baltimore. They have eggs and ribs. The ribs are really good, they are good with anything.

So how are the gay bars here?
In terms of nightlife, we have a limited scene but we have fun places to go, we don’t have that many places to go out at night, but compared to other cities like Washington DC, people are much more friendly. The people in Baltimore don’t size other people up. Because living in Baltimore is not a sign of status like it is (cough, cough) that other city. So, nobody puts on airs. And when you meet people they tend to be really down to earth. So that makes the social scene very pleasant, very “what you see is what you get” kind of thing. It’s a fun relaxing place to go out. Chances are when you meet someone, they will be nice.

If you want to visit bars that have a lot of personality, we have those too. We have one of the oldest gay bars on the east coast – it’s been open since forever, and they just celebrated their 50th anniversary, Leons and its a very colorful, full of personality and colorful bar with regulars that have been going there a very long time. There are other bars that are similar in being neighborhood bars with very friendly clientele, some people really like that kind of thing.

The two most modern places to go would be Central and the Hippo, don’t get there before 11 on the weekends. Baltimore nights end early. Bars close at 2. At 1:30 you just have to leave. We have one after hours that is very gay friendly called Club 1722. But usually if people want to party late, they just go to people’s houses. Many times they invite people that they don’t know or go in groups. People are very friendly, so its easy to get invited to somebody’s place after the bars if you have been socializing with them.

Where would you recommend that people stay?
In Mount Vernon, of course. We usually put guests in the Abacrombie B&B right across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. It is very frilly, very charming. It’s a good place to stay if you like that kind of stuff. If you like there is a guesthouse: 4 East Madison that is frickin’ gorgeous, and I put friends there before and its not quaint like that – it’s more grand – its impressive. There is a full hotel right around the corner that I like: The Biltmore Suites. And the Peabody Court is a top notch hotel – a hotel you can send anyone to and they’ll be happy.

Everyone tells me I have to try the Baltimore Crabs

Baltimore Crabs, Photo by mdkd
Baltimore Crabs, Photo by mdkd

Baltimore Crabs are great. They are like a symbol of how people don’t put on airs in Baltimore. You definitely cannot put on airs when you are eating a Baltimore Crab, because you don’t have a plate, you don’t have utensils, you have to crack this thing open that’s like a sea monster, covered in this very heavy spice that gets all over you, You are smeared in this brown stuff and squirts all over and that makes it very fun. Because you get a number of people at a table and its a leveling thing. You can’t even have manners eating it. Its impossible. It takes a long time to eat and you never get full, so it’s really more of a social thing. It’s like a democratizing meal. It’s very unpretentious, but it is very satisfying. It’s rustic and sophisticated at the same time. It’s primitive, but it is exquisite. And that’s the best of life in Baltimore.

Couldn’t find a better metaphor to describe this great town. Thanks Jose.
Thanks and I hope people give Baltimore a try.

Want to see Jose’s Favorites?

Special Thanks:
We’d like to offer a special thanks to the City of Baltimore for getting us to come to Baltimore, the Inn at 2920 for hosting us, to Ra Restaurant for a great meal and CenterStage for inviting us to see Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.