Tuesday, September 24, 2013

800 Words: The "Special" Destiny of Baltimore

If you want to piss off a crowded room of Baltimoreans, there is nothing that will do it quicker than to point out the truth so obvious that it would never occur to nearly every non-Baltimorean in the world to think otherwise. But these are special words - three words that make Baltimoreans quake in their boots with the sudden realization that their lives are barren with meaning. Three words that make them realize that by rejecting the conventions of larger cities, they are merely living out their rejection without putting more than the smallest meaning in its place. Three words that every Baltimorean will do everything to avoid, everything to oppose, and everything to shout down. Three words for which a consultant can make a nice living telling people it’s simply not true every day.


Baltimore is just another mid-size American city. In many ways, it’s a very nice one. If you live in a good area, you can live a nice life rather cheaply, and have no more chance of being molested than in any other major American city. Baltimore has Johns Hopkins Hospital and University and an attendant scientific community. It has a financial district of some consequence, even if ultimately marginal. And as the federal government becomes too large to be contained by Washington, there are more arms of government which trickle into Baltimore every year. The city has three wonderful if rather tiny art museums, a fantastic art school (even if MICA’s most famous graduate is Jeff Koons…) and a just as great music conservatory where Leon Fleisher’s taught for nearly half a century; local scenes in all the arts that on its own small stages are truly thriving, and a few acts whose appeal even transcends the local. In any given year, Baltimore;’s capable of producing a few nights of truly world-class theater and classical music. It is a lucrative stopping-point for high profile rock bands and comedians. But the fact that you can name all these features of Baltimore is roughly the same as saying that the opportunities of Baltimore are a mile wide and an inch deep.

It’s history is certainly important to America - with everything from Betsy Ross to Barbara Fritchie. During the War of 1812, it became the most important city in America for a moment. It’s housed four of the most important American writers - one of whom, Edgar Allen Poe, died too young to truly set roots down here. Another, W. E. B. DuBois, had long since done his most significant work and already in his dotage when he lived here; his most important contribution to world discourse during his Baltimore years was to vociferously oppose America’s involvement in World War II, especially after Pearl Harbor. Still another lived his dotage in Baltimore; by the time he moved to Baltimore, John Dos Passos had long completed his USA trilogy and became an ex-liberal who spent his Baltimore years supporting the campaigns and causes of Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived here for two years, and the only way Baltimore proved particularly inspirational was to his drinking habit. A fifth, Ogden Nash, lived here for his adult life, and had his moment in American letters as the foremost mid-century American writer of comic poetry, but has long since been forgotten, even by Baltimoreans. A sixth writer, the cultural gadfly H. L. Mencken, was the only truly eminent writer who was also a lifelong Baltimorean, and he was an unrepentant fascist fellow traveler to his dying day. It also was the creative home for two of the more important American filmmakers - one of whom, John Waters, is more influential (and more fun) as a personality than his films. The other, Barry Levinson, long since became a high-end Hollywood hack.  Baltimore county birthed both a corrupt Vice-President and a particularly insane UN ambassador (John Bolton). Tori Amos, David Byrne, Cab Calloway, Nancy Pelosi, Frederick Douglass, Phillip and Ira Glass (first cousins), Billie Holiday, Alger Hiss, Jeff Koons, Frank O’Hara, Parker Posey, John Rawls, Adrienne Rich, Tupac, Sargent Shriver, Gertrude Stein, Kathleen Turner, Leon Uris, James Wolcott, Chick Webb, and Frank Zappa were all born or raised around here, but virtually all of them made their fortunes elsewhere and stayed away for the rest of their lives. Most of them seem to follow a pattern - born to either upper class or intellectually engaged parents, who then unleashed them on bigger cities so that they could conquer larger worlds than Baltimore.

By far, the most important piece of fiction to ever come out of Baltimore is The Wire - which is ultimately as much a work of social protest as a work of art. It’s a Washingtonian’s view of Baltimore - focusing on its politics and urban blights and not on the quirks that make Baltimore itself. Baltimore is not Baltimore in The Wire, it is a metaphor for the terminal plight of all American cities. It’s a legitimate view of the city, but it’s a view born not of long familiarity but of journalistic inquest. For all its humor and pathos, there is something truly sterile and clinical about the show. We’re watching the lives of black people through white eyes. It’s a great show like Emile Zola’s Germinal is a great novel. The impoverished of Baltimore are not people, they’re archetypes meant to speak for others more than fully formed individuals. I would certainly rather The Wire be our epochal television show than The West Wing, but like in The West Wing, I think people need to digest obscene amounts of progressive piety and dogma to find The Wire a particularly meaningful experience to watch. The Wire is more interested in showing us life as it is than life as it’s lived. So often, I hear that The Wire is a great show because ‘that’s how life truly is.’ But The Wire is a work of fiction, not a documentary. The greatness of The Sopranos or Mad Men or Breaking Bad is that ultimately, even in Mad Men, the characters and stories mean nothing but themselves. These shows ask moral question after moral question, but they’d never think to answer their questions. Mad Men asks questions, The Wire provides answers. I know which I find more interesting.

If you want to move from a Global City to Baltimore for the chance to become a big fish in a small pond, that is perfectly legitimate. But to tell anyone that Baltimore has things to offer the world at large which trump those all those other cities in importance or even quality is not just ludicrous, it’s breathtakingly dishonest. Even if Baltimore is a city that punches above its weight, and it does, that weight nevertheless puts it in a lower class of its particular world-region than New York, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Miami.

The only equivalent East-Coast city is Charlotte. What makes living in Baltimore any better than living in Charlotte? For that matter, what makes living in Baltimore any better than living in Cincinnati, or Portland (Oregon), or San Jose, or even Adelaide or Glasgow or Bristol or Edinburgh? In terms of worldwide amenities, these are the English-speaking equivalents to Baltimore. History will remember Baltimore as a perfectly nice city of perfectly nice people - perhaps there was a filmmaker here or a musical group there which occasionally made it extraordinary. If you lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it might have been something like living in Brno or Lubliana. If you lived in the Roman Empire, living in Baltimore might have been like living in Herculaneum or Nimes. Baltimore a perfectly nice city, containing its own unique well of culture, but is not a city of consequence on the world stage, it hasn’t been in well over a hundred years, and it won’t be again any time within our lifetimes. It is not a worse place for that, but if you need the amenities of a world capital, you’re in the wrong place. If your goal is for Baltimore to ever be thought of as a city of world consequence, you’re so far in the wrong place that you should move away tomorrow. It’s rather adorable that people think of Baltimore as being a place whose greatness can compete with larger cities which have more money, more amenities, and less segregation. But Baltimore is great because it is so unexportable. You have to live here to understand the wonderfulness of the milieu. It is a city of eccentrics, most of whom could only survive around other people who are similarly eccentric to them. In this way, it’s a city like every other eccentric city, with types of people one could just as easily find in Boulder, Berkeley, Oakland, New Orleans, Seattle, Portland (both Oregon and Maine), Austin, Burlington, Minneapolis, Jamaica Plains and Allston-Brighton, H-Street and Petworth, Northern Liberties, Wicker Park, Silver Lake, The Mission District and North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, and many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City, and Hoboken - places in which the people are utterly unique, just like everybody else. And yet, because there is a tolerance for weirdness, it causes the people within it to be neighborly in a manner that is truly rare anywhere else in America. In all these places, America is experiencing a kind of 1950’s for the Bohemian culture.

(Green Acres for the Hipster Set)

If Baltimore ever became a ‘more important’ city, nearly everything recommendable about the city would disappear almost overnight. The things which I love about Baltimore are only possible because of Baltimore’s smallness. Because Baltimore has such comparatively few amenities, it’s one of the very few ‘large’ cities in the US where the young professional white eccentrics feel as though have the keys to the entire city. There is so much tolerance in this city for weirdness because weird is the closest thing the city has to an engine - the primary source of vitality in a city sapped of it. And as such, there is none of the ‘edge’ and ‘judgementalness’ which one finds in cities where hipsters, hippies, punks, and the like have to feel territorial. More ‘normal’ white people have long since moved to the county, and most black people have either followed suit or are so beaten down by the ghetto that they don’t even have the energy to point out to white people how ridiculous they are. Like every place, there are benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, nobody feels the need to point out that there are so many terrible shows, terrible bands, terrible art galleries, terrible theaters, terrible concerts, terrible food. On the other hand, because nobody points it out, everybody feels accepted. Baltimore, the city at least, is a place where people accept you for whom you are, and one of the largest cities in which you can take it to the bank that your eccentricity will be celebrated, not denigrated. Were it any larger, that would no longer be possible. It’s highly unlikely that truly great things would ever happen in Baltimore which astonish the world. But who needs greatness? What we need is decency and acceptance, and Baltimore provides it to so many people who would never feel that way in other places.

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