When an annual survey named Baltimore the fittest city in America, many Charm City residents had the same response: You gotta be kidding.
Sure, people here are known for eating lots of seafood, but are crab cakes and deep-fried lake trout the staples of a healthy diet?
“I think it’s probably the most mis-fit city in America,” said Charisse Bailey as she dug into a typical Baltimore lunch: fried red snapper on thick white bread, with a side of french fries and a beer.
The city’s skyline is dotted with neon signs advertising Domino sugar, Utz potato chips and National Bohemian beer. And while many neighborhoods, such as Fells Point and Federal Hill, have been transformed by an influx of young professionals, a Friday night visit to either reveals a culture that revolves around drinking and greasy food.
Nevertheless, Men’s Fitness magazine placed Baltimore at the top of its annual list of cities where fitness is king, ahead of Honolulu (No. 2 for the second consecutive year), San Francisco (No. 7) and last year’s winner, Seattle (No. 8).
The fattest city in America for 2006 is Chicago, taking over the dubious honor from Houston.
Last year, Baltimore was closer to Houston than it was to Honolulu, checking in as the 25th-fattest city in the Men’s Fitness tally.
How could such a turnaround be possible in the span of a year? Men’s Fitness editor Neal Boulton is quick to point out that the survey is far from scientific, and he says it took additional factors into account this year that worked in Baltimore’s favor.
Among them: the amount of public park space, access to health care, air quality, the relatively small number of fast-food restaurants and the leadership of Mayor Martin O’Malley. Boulton says Baltimore has become safer, more prosperous and more conducive to fitness.
“Baltimore is a paragon of urban renewal. That’s why it’s the fittest city, that’s why it’s the comeback city,” he said.
Boulton says he also reduced the importance of climate in the survey, which is one reason Baltimore squeaked ahead of Honolulu.
'Baltimore lives on junk food'
Rival magazine Men’s Health had a different take on Baltimore. In its current issue, the magazine ranks Baltimore 93rd on its list of the “100 Best Cities for Men,” with grades of “F” in health and quality of life and “C+” in fitness. San Francisco tops the Men’s Health survey, and Honolulu is No. 2.
“Baltimore lives on junk food. That’s why we’re all standing here,” said electrician Mark Smith as he surveyed the scene at Lexington Market. The popular downtown lunch spot has dozens of kiosks selling fried chicken and cheap Chinese food.
“I’ve been eating here for 21 years,” Smith said. “I walk around and think, ‘What’s the lesser of the evils?”’
While the city has seen significant reductions in violent crime, large sections remain plagued by poverty and drugs, and residents of less prosperous neighborhoods often have to depend on convenience stores and takeout food for sustenance.
“We don’t eat well at all,” said Tremonteria Morgan, a vegetarian. “We eat a lot of fried foods — fried chicken and soul food. For myself, I have to search high and low for a health food place. We have a lot of obesity here in our city.”
The mayor looked on the bright side, attributing Baltimore’s increasing fitness to its economic revival and the end of its precipitous population drop.
“You see some neighborhoods starting to grow again, and attracting younger people. With those younger people coming, there’s a number of gyms now,” O’Malley said. “In every growing neighborhood, you look for two leading signs — one is a gym and the other is a Starbucks.”