One week after dropping its atomic bomb on the city of Baltimore, the New York Times gazes across the remaining rubble, notices a few cultural daisies still standing here and asks its readers to pluck a few of these wayward survivors and press them to their hearts.
On March 17, it was pure devastation – a New York Times Magazine cover story headlined, “How an American City Falls Apart: The Tragedy of Baltimore.” The piece was longer than the Old Testament and contained biblical-style curses upon mankind, plus pious lamentations over the city’s poverty, our crime, our abandoned buildings, our citizens eager to catch the last bus out of town, our …
Hell, do we need another recitation of our problems?
This week, The Times gives us another big spread. But this one pats us on the head. It’s headlined, “Why Baltimore Persists as a Cultural Beacon: The city (population 600,000) has produced an eclectic variety of artists, including John Waters, Joyce J. Scott, David Simon and Abdu Ali.”
Hey, Bawlamer, we’re eclectic!
The piece was written by Andrew Martin, who tells us, “I was born in Columbia, Md., a suburb of Baltimore.”
Uh, hold it right there, Andrew. Columbia is not a suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville and Towson and Glen Burnie are suburbs of Baltimore. Columbia is a city in Howard County. If anything, Columbia is a suburb of Ellicott City.
But, Martin informs us, as if offering assurance that he knows the turf, “I travel to Baltimore and its surroundings every year or two.”
Yeah, that ought to give him a sense of texture.
Anyway, he needn’t bring up his reportorial bona fides. The piece is thoughtful enough, if you don’t mind a kind of paternalistic tone, such as wishing us luck as “the odd, ambitious place where murderous drag queens roam the streets.”
The “murderous drag queen” Martin is wistfully recalling is John Waters’ pal, Divine. Martin likes Waters’ early movies because they feel like “looking through a keyhole into a very particular, and quite varied, fetish party.” He likes “The Wire” because David Simon’s “drug dealers are philosophers, the police brutal poets of vulgarity.”
Martin declares, “A deep variant of the strange runs through the water in Baltimore,” a place he finds “an otherwise relatively inconsequential midsize city … rare in today’s cultural landscape.”
Why is Baltimore such a rare find? “The longstanding availability of cheap space in which to work and experiment combined with the interconnected collegiality of its arts communities has fostered this energy, even as Baltimore’s residents, artistic and otherwise, struggle with the city’s dire political conditions. This paradox … is at the heart of the city’s creative life.”
How about this, New York Times? How about we get back to that fancy word used in your very own headline: “eclectic” – meaning, in the general dictionary definition, “deriving ideas, style or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.”
Just as The Times wishes to define our artists as “eclectic,” it’s also a label for this city – or any city. And any writer can focus on one area of town, one community, one neighborhood – or a handful – and come away with a story that’s completely different than the story you’d get from another location or handful of them.
Parts of cities are in trouble, and parts are thriving. Harborplace used to be rotting piers and street vagrants and seagulls who somehow missed the last flight out of town. Harbor East used to be the William O. Scarlett Seed Co. sitting next to acres of cement and weeds. Now look at them.
Or take a look at the area around Johns Hopkins Hospital, where old row houses that should have been condemned decades ago were finally torn down and replaced by lots of new housing – at the same time the hospital is expanding like crazy.
Or look at the Butchers Hill area near Patterson Park, where median home values have more than doubled over the past decade. Some call this gentrification. Others see it as an area once pronounced troubled and now pronounced reborn.
That’s Baltimore — hell, it’s any city — where pieces are falling down at the same time that other pieces, previously pronounced dead, are coming alive once again.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.