East Coast Mainlining
The Skinny travels by train from DC to AC (Atlantic City)
Washington DC is the ultimate company town. It was once described as having an aura of power that seduces people; it's something that's known as Potomac Fever. Visitors are overwhelmed by this beating heart of the most powerful nation on earth. Politics is the main employer in the city. Washington was designed from scratch to be the capital of the United States; its architecture is littered with Greco-Roman pillars and domes. By contrast there is a wonderfully seedy underbelly.
Tourism is the other main employer – the place is full of museums, mausoleums and monuments. President Kennedy once wittily described Washington DC as "a city of northern charm and southern efficiency."
Poisonous Potomac Fever takes its name from the river on which the city stands and it affects the army of politicians, media pundits, academics, bureaucrats, socialites and spin doctors who work ‘within the Beltway,’ Washington’s ring road. Potomac Fever is at its most intense in a presidential election year when an army of political activists moves in to plan and carry through the campaign.
The atmosphere is positively claustrophobic. Travel writer Jan Morris once observed: "It's an alienating city. It lacks the corporate gift of hospitality." A sense of ruthlessness is a constant undercurrent in Washington life where the ethos is ‘do unto others before they do unto you.’ One senior politician with years of experience in the ways of the power elite noted: "Everyone knows everyone manipulates everyone else." The leafy neighbourhood of Georgetown (the famous setting for the classic movie The Exorcist) has been described as "the most obsessively political residential enclave in the world."
That aside, there are a fantastic range of free museums, including the world-famous Smithsonian Institution. New ones seem to be opening all the time. Recent additions include the International Spy Museum (which traces the history of spying from the days of Elizabeth I to satellite surveillance) and the Holocaust Memorial Museum where you can pick up educational DVDs in the gift shop.
The fact that Washington is the home of scandal should come as no surprise. Inject a little light relief with a famous scandal bus or walking tour. The most famous landmark is surely the Watergate building.
A short train ride takes you to the home of John ‘Pope of Trash’ Waters, the schlock film director who helped make Baltimore a movie buff’s paradise. Waters called his hometown the Hair-do Capital of the World, where women in beehives and pointed spectacles, like something out of a Far Side cartoon, go around calling each other ‘hon.’ What other American city could name one of its main thoroughfares Pratt Street or have a graveside shrine to a shit-eating drag queen?
Charm City has long associations with Edgar Allan Poe, humourist HL Mencken and wacky neo-pop artist Jeff Koons. Rockers Frank Zappa and David Byrne were sons of Baltimore and Wallis Simpson was the Baltimore gal who prompted the abdication crisis. The fictional Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was where Dr Hannibal Lecter, the antihero of The Silence of the Lambs was incarcerated. In Hitchcock's Marnie the crazy mom lived in Baltimore. And expletive-strewn police procedural The Wire is also set here.
New Yorkers used to see Baltimore as Hicksville but it has become the Seattle of the East. There’s a fantastic, edgy music scene and the cost of living is much cheaper than NYC.
This university town is famous for the Johns Hopkins University which was long in the forefront of Aids research. Baltimore people are proud to say that "you were born here, grew up here, get married here and die here." It's that kind of town. It also has its share of freaks as the books on the shelves of Waters’ favourite bookshop attest – Atomic Books at 3620 Falls Road.
Back in the 1970s Baltimore almost invented urban renewal. The city, formerly one of the East Coast's major industrial centres, now attracts day-trippers. The docks, once a hardcore no-go area, were transformed by glassed over shopping malls – Harbour Place was devoted to food and restaurants like the city’s signature dish Maryland crab. Served with spicy sauce and a little wooden mallet with which to bash the claws, you’ll get a fetching bib and a bucket on the floor for the shattered shells.
Philly cheesesteaks are an unhealthy and acquired taste. The city’s streets and public buildings have a polished grandeur so that its skyline looks as if it had been created by Disney. It's here that you will find the cracked Liberty Bell – an apt metaphor for the America we all know and love. The city has none of the mad hustle of New York, nor the pompous domes of Washington. The massive Eastern State Penitentiary – a gothic haemorrhoid in the Fairmount district – is the nation’s largest haunted attraction. Once the most famous and expensive prison in the US, it is now a cavernous ruin, its distempered cell blocks at Halloween season sport state-of-the-art special effects and lighting, digital sound, animatronics and performers who bring the 11-acre site to spooky life in shock corridor events with names like Lock Down and The Experiment. The Masonic Temple, built in 1873, is located at 1 North Broad Street, directly across from Philadelphia City Hall and astonishingly receives thousands of visitors every year who come for a taste the secret society’s, er, outreach programme.
Another train ride gets you to Boardwalk Empire; Atlantic City is like a scuzzy Las Vegas with long associations with the Mob. Its wooden boardwalk promenade has barely changed since the 1870s when it was built but the rest of the place is deliciously down on its uppers. It's not without its charms. After all, it’s where Tony Soprano comes when he needs the sea air.
Picturesque seediness and Americana meet corporate glitz. The pier is not a place you'll find slot machines but expensive designer handbags and accessories from Gucci and Louis Vuitton. It's a huge contrast to the T-shirt vendors and 99 cent stores that line the Boardwalk.
The jewel in the turd is surely the Trump Mahal casino – complete with gilded onion domes. Away from the Boardwalk, the main drag hosts a mix of shops where you can buy anything from mob henchman's shoes in blue mock-croc to last season’s Ralph Lauren or visit one of the tarot card readers and palmists. If you get into difficulty there is the Frank Sinatra wing of the local hospital.