Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

The sounds of Baltimore: Learning to listen

By RAGHAV AGRAWAL | March 14, 2024



Agrawal writes about the community he has found in the Baltimore Bike Party.

While running the risk of taking the name of this column too literally, it's time we talk about the sounds of Baltimore. While it may be famous for its crabs, Old Bay and Natty Bohs — its glistening harbor, picturesque parks and breath-taking sunsets — the voices of the city hold a special place in my heart.

I grew up in Bombay (Mumbai), on the west coast of India, and was introduced to the sounds of a city in a bustling metropolis. From the fisherwomen calling out the day’s catch, the scrumptious “oohs-aahs” of the hungry folk devouring their hot vada pavs (a staple of the city) or even the repetitive sounds of the local train hitting the tracks carrying almost thrice the number of passengers it should — these definitive voices added to the allure of my city. These experiences cemented my (foolish) romanticization of cities and, upon immigrating to Baltimore, expectations for a special experience in my new home were high.

While the novelty of freshman year (and the fact that I lived in the seclusion of the AMRs) meant I wasn’t engaging with Baltimore enough to have an opinion on its sounds, my sophomore year living on St. Paul Street has been an interesting experience, to say the least. I got a taste of the sound most people commonly associate with Baltimore — its plentiful sirens. 

There seems to be a fire in Baltimore every night; at least, that’s what I assume, given just how many fire trucks are running through the streets, their drivers leaning on devastatingly loud horns. On other nights, the city will serve me up a new, innovative siren that leaves me guessing (and gives me something to do when I can’t fall back asleep at 4 a.m.). On nights when the fire department takes a break, almost as if the city has plotted against me, MedStar Union’s helicopter and associated ambulances are out in full swing. 

These aren’t criticisms of Baltimore. I am sure the inhabitants of every major city in the world have felt a rude awakening or two in their time there. As citizens of this city, it’s alright to call out the wrongs — as long as we’re contributing to discussions to make it right! 

While this may be a conventional voice of the city, I am determined not to let it be its defining sound. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time in Baltimore, it's that it’s easy to find communities of like-minded individuals. You can call it an accident, dumb luck or pure fate, but I found my voice in a community of cyclists who partake in what is a monthly tradition for the city — the Baltimore Bike Party. 

An innocuous 10-mile ride of the city to an innocent bystander, this last-Friday-of-the-month celebration is the furthest thing from a quiet bike ride. If you’ve had the privilege of seeing this spectacle of over 500 bikers on the road together (which has passed by Homewood Campus a few times!), you’ve probably heard the reverberating calls of “Bike Party” being shouted on the streets of Baltimore, in between retro jams from the numerous good Samaritans who trail large industrial-size speakers behind them. 

Our new routes every month take us around the city, where one can hear laughter from the pubs and restaurants this city is famous for, with an occasional pedestrian joining our chants. It can lead to some cheeky moments as well. Just last month, empowered by my new speaker, I rode alongside a member of the Baltimore Police Department, blaring the theme to Bad Boys for Life, law enforcement’s unofficial song. Baltimore comes alive during its monthly Bike Party, and its organized chaos creates a melodious harmony (and numerous Citizen app alerts) that exemplifies the voice of the city.

If biking is not for you, fear not! There’s truly something for everyone in this city. Despite being an avid cricket fan back home, I gave an Orioles game a try, determined to recreate the exhilaration of watching a live sport (for not that much money!). While the players quite obviously didn’t hear (nor would they have understood) my usual Hindi chants, what they did hear was the city turn up to sing our special rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — and pretty much every song that we could insert the “O” call into. 

While these may be uniquely Baltimore experiences, you can find solace in the small things that matter, even here on campus! On any fall day, you can hear leaves crinkling under students rushing to class, the squirrels scampering through the leaves and the subsequent gushing of passersby (which is probably just me). It’s the little things, like playing the classic “Good Morning Baltimore” at the beginning of what seems like the perfect day.

Ultimately, the relationship between a city and its inhabitants is reciprocally symbiotic; Baltimore is going to give you just as much as you give it. We may find innumerable reasons to dislike the city, but that really isn’t helping either entity. It’s time we ditch these conventional notions and focus on what Baltimore has to offer. I am certain that if you just listen, you may find your calling. 

Raghav Agrawal is a sophomore from Mumbai, India studying Economics and Environmental Science.

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