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Bawlmer's Swell These Days, Hon

Once decaying, and still rough in some neighborhoods, Baltimore, Maryland - which is now America's 20th-largest city - got a glorious face-lift between 1960 and 1980. That's when it redeveloped its grimy industrial harbor into rows of fine restaurants, hotels and shops, plus the new National Aquarium, a science center and a maritime museum.

Soon this old seaport - once the nation's second-leading point of immigration behind New York's Ellis Island - had carved out a comfortable tourism niche. After all, people want to see the homes of macabre poet Edgar Allen Poe and baseball legend Babe Ruth. Those sites, tasty blue hard crabs, world-class museums, medical facilities, symphony orchestra and the fort that inspired America's national anthem entice more than 15 million out-of-town visitors a year.

Even so, like many old, cold-weather U.S. cities, Baltimore has been losing population - 98,000 since 1990 alone.

But Baltimore has held on to a quirky side that shows up in its tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods and somewhat nasal accent that many Baltimoreans themselves poke fun at. They tend to leave the "t" out of the city's name. It's "Bawlmer, hon" - pronounced "hun."

That's short for honey. For years, someone kept painting the word "hon" on a huge expressway sign outside town, making it read, "Welcome to Baltimore, hon!"

Waitresses at the Café Hon, a meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes-type diner, will tell you that "hon" is a term of endearment - a friendly way of saying, "Hi, hon, how you doin'?" Those waitresses sometimes celebrate Baltimore's uniqueness by, as one of them puts it, "dressing up with big hair and old party dresses or black spandex [elastic] pants."

So the old port city of Baltimore may be down on its luck a little, but at Café Hon - and other neighborhood joints like Fat Elvis's antique shop and Holy Frijole's Restaurant - you can still let your hair down and have a good time.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.