Examining the myth behind D.C.’s love affair with Baltimore
Two cities: One hosts the most powerful people on the planet. The other features lots of steamed crabs. But in a municipal race for the hearts of the region, Baltimore wins without so much as setting down its beer. Does that say more about the riches just outside the lights of Camden Yards—or the alleged emptiness beyond the federal Mall?
To say our love affair with Baltimore is unrequited doesn’t quite get it. Every city and village in the country hates Washington, but our closest neighbor hates us more. Where we look at our town and see a vast ocean of cheap cultural riches, Baltimoreans see a trolley ride into hell. But we respond by forming automotive conga lines that feed into the lots that ring the Inner Harbor. The routes are, by now, well-grooved. A stop at the Yard, a water taxi out to Fells Point, and a communal bowl of mussels at Bertha’s. Nice to chat up the guy next to you at the bar, even if he’s just another schmuck on safari from D.C. You wouldn’t give him so much as a glance at the 18th Street Lounge, but hey, you’re in Baltimore, so why not act friendly?
Most cities in the country bear a regional resemblance to the other cities nearby. Washington is unlike any other, but we are less like Baltimore than all of the rest. True, we both serve as vestigial municipalities that frame tourist attractions at our core, but the two cities have little else in common beyond uncommonly high crime rates. Our foccacia sandwiches will never fit in their lunch buckets, and a $4 latte doesn’t rest easily next to a $1 Bud longneck.
In spite of that, or perhaps precisely because of it, we are drawn to the antipode, even if we have mythologized it beyond all reason. Washingtonians live in a city that millions of people travel thousands of miles to see every single year. Why, then, when we want to feel at home, really at home, do we drive 40 miles up a crowded, ungodly freeway to one of the most provincial places on earth?
Why Washingtonians shouldn’t fall too hard for Charm City
By Elissa Silverman
For most of the past five years, I’ve been an enabler of sorts.
I’ve lied about her to protect her image. I’ve hidden ugly parts of her from friends. I’ve rationalized her bad habits as quirks or idiosyncrasies. I’ve dismissed concerns about her health as hysteria.
I tell myself that I’m doing it out of love and loyalty.
Most of all, though, I do it out of guilt. I could have chosen to live with her, but instead I decided to shack up with another city. I know that for most others she’s involved with, the relationship lasts a lifetime, but is that really fair? I had no say about my whereabouts for the first 18 years or so. I did move hundreds of miles away just to distance myself from her. Now, I’m close enough to keep tabs and pop over for dinner every once in a while, but far enough so that I’m not part of her everyday life. And, to be perfectly honest, I like it that way.
For the first few years, my little compact worked like a charm. I spoke about Baltimore with dollops of fondness and nostalgia. And, to my surprise, almost all my hypereducated, ambitious, and urbane Washington friends agreed.
They coo about Washington’s not-so-sister city, chanting about how it’s so “funky” and “genuine” and “down-to-earth.” Oh, and fun. They say that they often hit I-95 when they need to escape the vapid, monotonous, one-company-town life in the District. Baltimore gets them back in touch with “reality,” you know, and people who call you Hon.
Baltimore, they gush, has all the intangibles the District lacks: “tradition,” “stability,” “working-class grit,” “ethnic neighborhoods,” and—my personal favorite—”real people working real jobs.” How could I disagree with such glowing praise? She’s my hometown, after all. I want to think the best of her. And I want others to do so, as well.
But they are in love with a concept, not a city.
The truth started to plague me. If I thought the place was so great, why would I never move back? Finally, I had to admit to myself: The characteristics of Baltimore that all my Washington friends love are exactly the reasons I left—for good. The city’s celebrated era as an industrial powerhouse—translation: blue-collar—and bustling economic and cultural hub—translation: real city—is largely a memory. And what’s replaced it? Harborplace and the ESPNZone? It’s a sinking ship—make that a Skipjack—goddammit.
But not in the minds of Washingtonians, who delight in the fact that Baltimoreans make Park Sausage instead of legislative sausage. They appreciate Baltimore for its past glory. And they’re not the only ones: Most Baltimoreans have reacted to the present by retreating to the past, as well. Living within the Baltimore beltway is like permanently slipping into a Frank Capra film: The Charm City Washingtonians have fallen so much in love with is as gauzy and yesterday as It’s a Wonderful Life.
Baltimore may have once laid claim to industrial grit as urban archetype, but paradigm shifts in the economy have transformed it into the Williamsburg of post-World War II industrial America, complete with the marketing campaign.
Don’t believe me? I’ll start with a basic piece of linguistic iconography: The phrase “Charm City” itself. It wasn’t painted door screens, or white marble front stoops, or weatherbeaten longshoremen, as civic legend would lead you to believe, that inspired H.L. Mencken to dub his hometown “Charm City.” Yes, the two words first appeared together in the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun, but the Sage of Baltimore was not the author.
Thumb through Mencken’s autobiographical Happy Days or Newspaper Days all you want, and, yes, he often describes the “charm” of the city, but he never goes quite so sentimental as to call it “Charm City.” It took four advertising executives recruited by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to dream up the darling phrase. The advertisements, which ran in the Sunpapers in 1975, trotted out all the predictable relics of the past that Washingtonians adore about Baltimore: endless row houses, ethnic neighborhoods, and even Mencken himself. Oh, and some steamed crabs, of course.
If Willie Don, as he is affectionately known after having been mayor of Baltimore, governor of Maryland, and now state comptroller (talk about living in the past, there’s a movement to have him run for mayor again—you’re telling me there isn’t anybody else to run that place?), had asked me to choose one icon to epitomize Baltimore, I’d pick the Baltimore Colts Marching Band. Sure, the others have a strong association with the city, but let’s face it: Many of the steamed blue crabs sold at Baltimore seafood giants Phillips and Faidley’s come from Virginia and North Carolina waters. And Philly and D.C. have just as many row houses. And I can’t imagine there weren’t residents of some other city who bought into the bullshit that the “tin men” in the ’40s and ’50s used to sell Formstone, the gray concrete mixture that filmmaker John Waters calls the “polyester of brick,” that Baltimoreans believed transformed their row houses into little castles.
The Colts Marching Band, on the other hand, gets to the true essence of Baltimore: its history. And the past is crucial to Baltimoreans, because they live in it so much.
It’s no mistake that native filmmakers Waters and Barry Levinson always view Baltimore through the prism of history. As Waters notes, “Most people who come to visit Baltimore say, ‘Oh, now I see: Your films are documentaries.’”
In that tradition, it’s only fair that we begin with a historical quiz, one worthy of Levinson’s Eddie Simmons. Simmons, you may recall from the film Diner, made a Baltimore Colts trivia quiz a crucial relationship hurdle for his fiancée, Elyse. She needed to score 65 points in a number of true-false, multiple-choice, and free-answer questions in order for him to marry her. When she missed the passing grade by two points in the end, Eddie declared, “The marriage is off.”
Now for your short quiz: March 29, 1984. Does that date hold any significance to you? It does to anyone worthy of calling him- or herself a true Baltimorean. It was the day—or early morning—that Satan stole the
soul of the city. And who might that municipal devil be? Even Elyse would count that one as a gimme: Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay.
On that snowy night, 11 Mayflower moving vans pulled up to the football team’s complex outside Baltimore in Owings Mills. (See Cheap Seats, Page 18.) In a matter of hours, the team’s belongings—including the jerseys and framed portraits of legends like Johnny Unitas, Alan Ameche, and David Letterman favorite Art Donovan—were headed west on I-70 to Indianapolis.
The city was devastated, as well it should have been. Baltimore loved its Colts, the story goes, and Irsay sacrificed that ardor on the auction block to the highest bidder. That’s the narrative held in common by all Baltimoreans.
But Baltimoreans have a selective memory about the Colts. No one will ever forget the ’58 Colts and the passes that the golden arm—Unitas—threw to Raymond Berry to beat the New York Giants. But there are other, less glorious periods in this epic.
I attended my first and, as it turns out, only Colts game in 1983. The team was terrible, and fan response was less than overwhelming. The icy metal benches of Memorial Stadium were half-empty as the Colts recorded another disappointing loss. At that point, Irsay had made it known that he was shopping around for a new stadium and new city. As attendance at that game showed, the Baltimore response initially was a very quaint, lusty “Fuck you.” Until Irsay made good on his threat.
When the moving vans hit the road, the tune quickly changed. “What will we do tomorrow, and the day after that, and the next 30 years?” wrote columnist Michael Olesker in the next day’s Evening Sun. “The good news: On Sunday afternoons in late autumn, we’ll have lots of time now to do the things we always wanted to do.”
“The bad news: What we always wanted to do was watch the Baltimore Colts.”
But the Colts’ move to Indianapolis didn’t alter the identity of one group of locals: The Baltimore Colts Marching Band. Before the move, the Colts Marching Band performed at every Colts game. Dressed in Colts blue-and-white country-western shirts and white fringed cowboy boots, the band reflected both the city’s honky-tonk Southern roots and its ’50s social sensibilities. At a time when the Dallas Cowboys’ cheerleaders put sex and glitz on the field, the Colts Marching Band remained chaste.
And loyal. Even after the Colts settled in the Hoosier Dome, the Colts Marching Band continued to perform. I’m not talking about just months after, because they’d already been booked for the July 4 parade or something. I’m talking five, 10, even 15 years. In the same uniforms—playing the same Baltimore Colts fight song. While the Indianapolis Colts wore the same colors and signature horseshoe emblem to represent a team halfway across the country, the Colts Marching Band wandered around the city as well as the country like Little Bo Peep—a sad reminder that Baltimoreans’ pride rests in the city’s past, not its future.
The irony, of course, is that the city responded to its abasement by perpetrating a like theft, luring away the Cleveland Browns with a ridiculously expensive new stadium. And how much do the Ravens mean to Baltimore? Not a heck of a lot. People show up because they are obligated by the personal seat licenses that so many purchased in an effort to return the city to the major leagues. It didn’t work.
It’s not just the Colts, though. Baltimoreans can be nostalgic about almost any damn thing. Even bars. Remember Hammerjacks, the infamous hair-band bar that got torn down for the Ravens stadium? Gone, but not forgotten: A local radio station held a Hammerjacks reunion in May. There was talk of trying to build a new Hammerjacks, even though, like the Colts, Hammerjacks folded largely due to dwindling attendance, which just happened to coincide with the building of the stadium.
I know a few things I could do to break my mother’s heart. And, like any loving daughter who experienced a healthy adolescence, at certain times I have felt obliged to road-test at least some of those. But there’s one maternal tenet, in my opinion, that transcends the rest, standing out as her First Commandment, the most holy, blessed Golden Rule handed to me, which I must not break: After you leave for college, never—ever, never—move back to Baltimore.
Even as an outsider, my mother understood one important truth about the city: Baltimoreans don’t leave. Hardly ever. Except for the summer vacation in Ocean City and the occasional field trip to “Warshington,” Baltimoreans largely stay put. Why go anywhere else? And, because they don’t leave, they don’t know what they’re missing, and heck, that suits them just fine. It’s almost as if the renegade who amended the Baltimore-Washington Parkway sign to read “Welcome to Baltimore, Hon” a few years ago had added a different addendum: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
A few do venture out, but mostly those are children of transplants, like me. A few months ago, I was having dinner with my parents in a neighborhood of Baltimore known as Greektown when we ran into the parents of an elementary school friend of mine. He had graduated from college and moved out to San Francisco. Funny, his mother told me, on that very night, Gus was having one of his Baltimore parties on the West Coast—where he invites all Baltimore natives and they get together and eat crabs. They’re big events, she said—almost a hundred people came last year.
“I didn’t think a hundred people left Baltimore,” my father responded. We all chuckled.
But it’s just as true as it is funny. “[Baltimoreans] don’t leave, and they don’t think there’s a reason to leave, and they’re very proud of the city for all the wrong reasons, and that’s why I like it so much,” explains Waters.
I honored my mother’s wish and, after a little leapfrog to Rhode Island, settled about 45 miles south, in Washington. I never seriously thought about returning to Baltimore—until, that is, everyone in Washington seemed so obsessed with the place. Friends wanted to visit. Colleagues wanted to talk about it. I started to wonder if I was too cynical—or had become too uppity—to appreciate all of the charm in Charm City myself. I didn’t really remember the city everybody seemed to be in the thrall of.
In 1978, when I was 5, my family left the Ice Storm world of Westchester, N.Y., and crossed the Mason-Dixon line to find a new home in Baltimore. Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” was soon a Top 10 hit: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/I went out for a ride, and I never went back.” My father’s name is Jack. It wasn’t a good omen.
My mother, who refused to drive even after leaving Manhattan for the New York suburbs, was silently, but furiously, against the relocation. She knew she was leaving behind day trips through Grand Central for ones through Glen Burnie, shopping at Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s for Hecht’s and Hochschild Kohn, and groceries at the Grand Union for those at the Giant.
My father, a lifelong New Yorker, spotted more of an opportunity. “We won’t need to buy the kids winter coats,” he reportedly told my mother before the move. A predictable punch line followed: We changed addresses in November, and that February, 28 inches of snow covered Baltimore’s streets.
That wasn’t our only miscalculation about the city. Coming from New York, we assumed the smaller population and famed small-town environment would make it easier to acclimate and get to know people. We found out the opposite: Baltimoreans live in a club that just happens to be a city—you have to pay your dues before you become a member. It’s a city where wearing a high school ring from City College or Baltimore Polytechnic Institute cements a business deal or earns a vote.
Non-natives—regardless of how long they stay—tend to remain on the outside of Baltimore’s civic and cultural life. Though Washingtonians complain about the city’s transiency, at least this city creates opportunities for those who come from elsewhere. The constant flow of new residents is what makes places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington dynamic cities that people want to move to—not just spend a fun night drinking in.
Those cities see newcomers as a source of new ideas, a way to shake up the status quo. That’s why even after some carping about carpetbagging, Washingtonians decided to give Tony Williams a chance. Sure, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke is a Harvard- and Yale-educated FOB, but he also was quarterback at City College High School and retreated to his hometown after hobnobbing with the New England elite. Say what you want about technocrats from somewhere else, there are very good reasons Schmoke is not running for office again: a school system in tatters, an estimated one out of eight residents addicted to heroin or cocaine, and a stagnant municipal economy at a time when the rest of America is struggling to find places to put new business.
Baltimore’s aspiring mayoral candidates also brag about their hometown loyalty. That’s about all they got going for them: In the original field of 27, six mayoral candidates entered the race with arrest records. One was thrown in jail on an outstanding burglary warrant. A second was wanted by police on a theft charge. Three have filed for bankruptcy, and one is altering his campaign literature after falsely claiming a degree from Loyola College. Now that’s home cooking, Hon.
It’s a Saturday afternoon and the red-brick sidewalks that trace the Inner Harbor from the ESPNZone around to the Rusty Scupper restaurant are packed. There’s hardly any elbow room on benches as visitors to Baltimore’s downtown waterfront consume $13 Phillips crabcakes, $5 Thrasher’s french fries, and a healthy portion of beer and $4 Oasis lemonades.
In the two decades after my family moved to Baltimore, former Mayor William Donald Schaefer jumped into the seal pool to open the National Aquarium in Baltimore, James Rouse completed and opened the urban mall known as Harborplace, and the Orioles moved from Memorial Stadium to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Truth be told, I kind of like the Inner Harbor. I’d be spit on for saying so in my hometown, but at least in the summer, its busy aimlessness makes it a fun place to stroll in the sun. I know I’m not supposed to—it’s faux Baltimore, after all. But it’s one of the few spots in the city where you’ll find a true salad bowl of age, race, and class—unlike those darling ethnic neighborhoods, where only certain ethnicities need apply. The Inner Harbor is the equivalent of the National Mall, all tourists and overpriced food and locals hosting family from out of town. And I love to mingle with all the bare-chested, overweight boaters who blast Styx and drink Budweiser while docked around the harbor. (Funny how Washingtonians find the hoi polloi so endlessly fascinating after a 40-mile trip up I-95, but plug their noses when dumpy tourists take seats next to them on the Red Line.)
The Inner Harbor’s not the Baltimore of Diner or Homicide or Hairspray or Pecker. The Baltimore that Washington doesn’t have. The gritty neighborhoods of white, ethnic working-class folk. The Baltimore that Washingtonians lust after.
I hop in my car and travel east from the Inner Harbor, on, appropriately, Eastern Avenue. Eastern Avenue is the Baltimore of Hairspray, the famed street where Ricki Lake and Divine reinvented cosmetology.
Unlike the bustling harbor, the sidewalk on Eastern Avenue is vacant. And so are most of the businesses on the block. The Gordon Phillips Beauty School, where Lake got all gussied up, is now the Southeast Youth Academy. Stella’s Bridals and S. Hiken still outfit Baltimore in lavender bridesmaid dresses and sky-blue tuxedos. But the busiest business on the block by far is Consolidated Pawnbrokers, at the corner of Conkling. Even Colortyme Rent-
to-Own, a few streets down, couldn’t last on
Over in South Baltimore, where Bethlehem Steel workers once ended every shift at the corner bar, even the corner bars are shuttering. I count two within five blocks. On a recent Friday afternoon at Hartlove’s, a small bar tucked in a Formstone-covered row house on East Fort Avenue, less than a handful of people take advantage of the $1 domestic beer happy-hour special. At the end of the small bar sits Jim, wearing a baseball cap, jeans, and a Domino Sugars T-shirt.
Jim melts down the sugar cane delivered to the plant, which amounts to about 5 million to 6 million pounds a day, he says. He has worked for Domino for 20 years, went to Southern High School down the street, and has never left South Baltimore for more than a weekend getaway. He’s raised three kids; his youngest just graduated from high school. He worries that his wife won’t be able to adjust to the empty nest and has lost interest in him as a husband and lover.
In Washington, it would be an incredible act of naiveté to reveal this much to the person on the bar stool next to you. But, undoubtedly, everyone else at Hartlove’s already knows Jim’s personal drama. I’d find out sooner or later, he figures. It’s hard to be anonymous or discreet in a place like Hartlove’s. By my second visit, bartender Sharon already knows my name, what I drink, and where my parents live in town. So do a number of the customers.
Hartlove’s is the real McCoy, the romanticized neighborhood bar that Washingtonians say they wish they had around the corner from their own homes.
But Hartlove’s isn’t the place where you gather with friends to kick back, lose some inhibitions, and hope you don’t remember what you said in the morning. It’s more like a living room with a cash bar—an all-ages affair where everyone takes part in the drama. When the phone rings at the bar Saturday night, Sharon knows that it’s Curtis’ wife on the other end. Curtis has been gabbing too long with Mr. Joe and Miss Margaret, an elderly couple sitting at the end
of the bar.
The three other Hartlove’s patrons at 10 o’clock this Saturday night are, apparently, embroiled in their own family dispute. Frank, a pencil-thin man with fine, long hair who’s dressed in a Tyson-Holyfield II T-shirt and jeans, plays the “Cherry Master” nickel slot machine back-to-back with the other nickel slot machine, which is his manned by his girlfriend. She’s dressed for the hot weather in white jeans shorts, a halter top, and Keds. They’re together, but apart. Frank’s in the doghouse for some reason. Tia, a young teenager who resembles both of them, walks in and talks to one, then the other. Frank reaches for his girlfriend’s arm when she walks by to go to the restroom. She resists.
Tia decides to order dinner from the carryout down the street.
“He’s trying to make up to her, huh?” Sharon says to Tia as she borrows the bar phone.
“Yeah, guess so.”
Almost everyone plays a few games of Keno during the evening to pass the time. No one wins. But the TV announces a $10,000 winner in Rockville. I leave that evening feeling warm but sad, kind of like the last time I visited my 90-year-old Aunt Molly in Brooklyn before she passed away.
Pecker, John Waters’ latest movie, proved that Baltimore doesn’t need to be chic like New York or status-conscious like D.C. It just needs to be itself.
I saw Waters film parts of Pecker, and it’s largely true: He didn’t modify the street too much for filming. In fact, the neighborhood where it was filmed, Hampden, hasn’t altered much during its entire history:
“[E]ven today, Hampden-Woodberry is a remarkably close-knit and durable community—a marvel to other Baltimoreans and to sociologists,” writes historian Bill Harvey in an essay in The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History. “The community rests squarely on the legacy of the mills and the culture of the rural white Americans who came to work in them.”
Not too long ago, an African-American family that bought a house in Hampden—no doubt attracted by the neighborhood’s clean and safe streets—quickly found out that the red carpet didn’t roll up to their white marble stoop. The family received greetings to the neighborhood in the form of racial epithets. They quickly decided to sell, and move to a more hospitable area. Likewise, the Poole School in Hampden has had students who professed their allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan.
The mills have almost all left the area, but one legacy still remains: “Unwillingness to get along with other ethnic groups has left its stamp on Hampden-Woodberry politics,” Harvey notes. “As far back as the 1940s, one could hear suspicion and even hatred in the code phrase ‘the people on the other side of the park.’ The term referred first to Jews and later to blacks, who moved out along the northwest corridor just west of Druid Hill Park.”
Ah, Charm City indeed.
I miss Memorial Stadium. I reminisce about it for all the reasons other Baltimoreans do: Earl Weaver platooning John “Tonight, Let It Be” Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in the outfield, “Wild Bill” Hagy chanting “Ed-die! Ed-die!” from Section 34, and knowing how and where to park on neighborhood streets for free. I especially miss that one.
“The leg room was terrible, the restrooms were awful, the concourses were too narrow, and there were a lot of bad sightlines, but it was a wonderful place to go to a baseball game,” recalls Washington Post writer Jonathan Yardley. “You’d look out over the left field fence and see Ednor Gardens.” (Yardley, it should be mentioned, moved to Washington from Baltimore after years of fetishing Baltimore in occasional sonnets to its authenticity.) Most Baltimoreans echo Yardley’s sentiments about Memorial Stadium.
But I love Camden Yards, too.
Perhaps it’s because I now spend 50 minutes on I-95 instead of five minutes on York Road to get to the game. Or because I’m old enough to appreciate the fact that there are more women’s rooms than men’s rooms at Camden Yards. Or because when I now go to a game, I sit with all those cell-phone-toting, microbrew-drinking, silent fans. You know: Washingtonians—
the ones who’ve supposedly ruined the base-
ball experience by not clapping, cheering, or yelling “Charge!”
I don’t get too much of a guilt trip over it, though. Because even though roughly 30 percent of Orioles fans come from the D.C. metropolitan area, I know that in spite of the stereotype, many of those paying 22 bucks for lower box seats and chatting on their Sprint PCS phones hail from Towson and Timonium, not just Tenleytown and Tysons Corner.
I look out over the bleachers and see the blue glow of the Bromo Seltzer tower—the model for my sixth-grade architecture project—and notice that the Maryland National Bank building is now the NationsBank building—that is, the BankAmerica building.
I eat my Esskay hotdogs. I drink a National Premium. I enthusiastically sing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at the seventh-inning stretch.
And, when the game ends, I eagerly ride back home to Washington. CP
THERE’S NO THERE HERE
A Charmed Perspective From Our Not-So-Twin City
By Tom Scocca
Staff Writer, Baltimore City Paper
OK, let’s get this straight: So you have this John Hughes-movie fantasy going, in which you (the District of Columbia) are, let’s say for the sake of argument, the sensitive kid, upper-middle-class, high achiever. Part of you pines for the homecoming queen (New York City), but, given that it’s a John Hughes movie, there’s this other girl (Baltimore), a loner, working-class (not too hard on the eyes in an earthy, winsome way), you met maybe while slumming in metal shop, or in driver’s ed. And now you’ve started to chafe against your high-achieving life, and you find yourself realizing that the homecoming queen is not really the girl of your dreams, but just a symbol of the very bourgeois, Type-A expectations that are suffocating you, and your heart truly belongs to the salt-of-the-earth girl (who is, now that you notice it, a genuine looker), until in the final reel—hey! presto!—you’ll fall into each other’s arms, true friends and soul mates, and you’ll be redeemed by her pure, honest love. Right?
Well, Mr. Class President, I’ve got some bad news for you: That girl doesn’t even know who the fuck you are. While you were putting up streamers for the Homecoming Committee, she was getting herself a scholarship to art school and a 20-year-old boyfriend and basically all the other ingredients of a life, a life like the life you don’t have, and which has no room whatsoever for your sorry, tightly wound, 1,500-on-the-SAT self.
This is what Baltimore-D.C. relations look like from our end. We don’t care about you. Ever. No, that’s not even it. We don’t think about you. You’re the median strip on the highway, the lettuce in the taco, the little ink doodles in the New Yorker: filler. Something has to be between us and Virginia—and, oh, hey, it happens to be you.
I’m not trash-talking here. That’s the second mistake D.C. makes, thinking that there’s a rivalry here, that it’s somehow vying with Baltimore for regional primacy. Baltimore is, no question, a very status-conscious and touchy city. We resent New York; we scowl at Boston; we look nervously at Cleveland and smooth down our shirt front, swearing that we know we’re not like that, at least. Yet D.C., despite its closeness, doesn’t trouble our civic mind.
Which is not to say that D.C. can’t be irksome in the same way as that little prick who’s always raising his hand in class, not to ask a question, of course, but to show exactly how much he knows. You’re annoying, nothing more. The Census Bureau stunt a few years back, where we got lumped into the “Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area,” was deeply offensive. But it was offensive merely because it was stupid. The Census bureaucrats thought they’d scored a clever blow, putting Washington’s name first, where standard practice puts the smaller of paired cities second. Up here, we didn’t see why we were paired cities at all. It was like when Dartmouth gets fired up and rowdy for the Harvard-Dartmouth football game—the Harvard fans are annoyed not by the taunts, but by the fact that Dartmouth thinks that there’s a rivalry at all.
A real rival has to impinge on your identity. Harvard and Yale, that’s a rivalry. Jacob and Esau. Blur and Oasis. Athens and Sparta. You see yourself in the other. We’ve looked, D.C. And, to paraphrase Frank Black: You ain’t us. Hon.
For starters, we’re two different places, Census Bureau or no Census Bureau. We’re not contiguous, in any meaningful sense. Look at a population-density map sometime. There’s a bottleneck, a clear pinch point where Greater Baltimore ends and Greater Washington begins. The highway between the cities may only be 40-odd miles—but it’s 40-odd miles of genuine capital-I Interstate, 85 mph territory, the kind of bare open road that exists only to bring vehicles and occupants from One Place to Another. There is a road between us, but it doesn’t connect us. To us, that highway decidedly does not beckon.
The problem, D.C., is that you’ve got no identity of your own. You’re an artificial city, vacant and derivative, like an urban-blighted Celebration, Fla. Take a good look in the Reflecting Pool and ask yourself just what you’d bring to our so-called relationship. Style? You’re the worst-dressed city on the Eastern Seaboard. Cuisine? A thousand restaurants, each aping the food from somewhere else. A wonky Afro-American mayor? We’ve already got one, thanks much.
Don’t even bring up your intellectual contributions. Your town: John McLaughlin, George Will. Ours: H.L. Mencken, John Barth. It’s painful to contemplate. Your writers write nothing but politics—and Mencken was a better political reporter than them all, in his spare time from being a pre-eminent critic of art and culture.
Wou do have a more-or-less first-rate daily paper, much better written and edited than our own feeble Sun. But the content! It reads like the U.S. Department of News. I page through a handy copy of the A section: “Conferees Vote to Lower Rates by 1 Percentage Point”…”Foreign Aid Bill Heads to Negotiators”…”Watts Threatened to Quit Post After Tiff With DeLay.” How about the features pages? “GOP Presidential Hopefuls All Genuflect at Reagan’s Altar”…”Funniest T-Shirts of 1999″…”High IQ, Low Social Skills.” Amen to that last one. The other daily is editorially tilted by its owner, a theologically muddled felon who believes he’s the Second Coming. The local weekly is in love with its own precocity and so hooked on deep-insider politics that only the subjects know what half the stories are about.
Sorry, folks, but we just don’t share the same interests. Truth to tell, we don’t have much in common at all. Take air travel. You think the “Washington-Baltimore area” has three airports. We know that Baltimore has one, BWI. You all can fly out of BWI, if you want. We never fly out of Dulles, unless we get screwed booking an international flight. We resort to National only for extreme discount fares, the way people from Boston resort to Providence.
Your sports teams are definitely not our sports teams. I’m glad you come up here and root for the Orioles; everyone should root for the Orioles. But Peter Angelos is about the only person who’ll mind if you manage to get a team of your own someday. Sports owners are benightedly selfish that way. Jack Kent Cooke, for instance, turned out to have spent 15 years secretly torpedoing our bids for a new NFL team after the Colts left town. It was a scummy and rotten thing to do, but above all it was pitiful.
He wanted to preserve the Baltimore market for his own team, the [Racial Slur]. We hate the [Racial Slur]. We hated them when they were losers, and when they were winners, and when they were losers again. We never considered joining the war-bonnet-wearing, hog-calling freaks in the D.C. stands, not even when we started getting [Racial Slur] broadcasts shoved down our throat every Sunday. We were so repulsed by the idea that we went out and got a Canadian Football League team and cheered for it instead, ’til finally—in our shame and frustration—we went out and whored ourselves and stole the Cleveland Browns.
Of the Washington Wizards, nee the Baltimore Bullets, I will not speak, save to say that they’re even more forgettable than you think they are. We have forgotten all about them. (Do they still have Tim Legler?)
The catalog of our differences could go on and on. We don’t watch the same TV stations, drink the same beer, or go to the same zoo. If we were one market, together, you wouldn’t be reading these words—this City Paper and my City Paper, which are not affiliated, would be sworn enemies. Instead, as a matter of formal policy, we don’t compete. Imagine two papers operating independently and amicably in Minneapolis and St. Paul, or Dallas and Fort Worth, or Tampa and St. Petersburg. We don’t compete for readers, because who would want to make a paper that Washingtonians would read, anyway?
Deep down, you must understand that your little romantic twin-cities fantasy is never to be; at best, we can be polite strangers. We’re thoroughly, impossibly wrong for each other. Go to Union Station on a Monday in June and watch the hundreds of new interns disembarking, in their identical putty-colored J. Crew suits. Go drinking in Georgetown and notice how easily and eerily the people at your table could be exchanged with the ones one table over. Baltimoreans are individual, to the point of being Dickensian. You folks are just the same damn thing over and over again.
The words that kept coming up, when I was talking to Baltimoreans about our cities’ relationship, were “field trip.” That’s all you mean to us: museums, monuments, cool marble floors, that ponderously high-vaulted subway system. Something to look at, not to live in. The most sensational addition to the District in my lifetime has been the Vietnam memorial—basically, a big list of dead people. It’s a perfect D.C. thing: important, grave, and somber. But, honestly, how often are you going to drive 40 miles so you can feel gloomy?
A few weeks back, I found myself driving along the south edge of the Mall at dusk on a Saturday night. Everything seemed tranquil and odd. Then I realized: There were no signs or display windows. Nobody was announcing “Beauty Supply”or “Checks Cashed” or “Lake Trout.” There was just one low, massive building after another, silent and indifferent. It was calming, in a way, but it was as dead as the Acropolis.
I know the District isn’t really like that throughout. After a dozen blocks of mausolean Federalism, though, that qualification seems academic. And, yes, there’s a dead zone in Baltimore, too, but it’s a speck by comparison. Ours is the Inner Harbor area, all urban-renewed and phony, right off the highway for easy access to out-of-towners. You can come in, see the sights, and get the hell out again. We won’t miss you, because we never noticed you in the first place. CP
WHEN A BIG CITY REALLY ISN’T
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
I got my first taste of local Washington when I was 12. My mother taught school in the District, and my pops worked at the library at Howard University. Those times when I would be out for an odd holiday and my parents would have to work, they had no choice but for one of them to bring me along. Usually I’d go with my mother—given the choice between thousands of dusty books and a class full of kids, I usually chose the kids.
Even though my mother was a pretty rough teacher, most of her kids thought I was all right—at least when they first met me. But once they got some background, my cool factor quickly took a nose dive. You can start with the fact that I was a Cowboys fan—a sure-fire way to be public enemy No. 1 at any D.C. institution. Then it was my choice in music—while Rakim ruled my home court, go-go was the District’s very own melody. The first two strikes weren’t enough to make me a total Herb, but they made the kids take a second look at me. And then, inevitably, some little punk would recall some conversation he had had with my mother and remark, “Hey, ain’t you from Baltimore, Joe?”
The Baltimore card was at once the conversation-ender, the debate-clincher, the outcast-maker. The floodgates opened for all kinds of cracks once folks figured out I was from Charm City. It began with comments about how, in Baltimore, all the dudes have gold teeth and the height of every honey’s hairdo could cast a shadow all the way down I-95. Then the ribbing would proceed to larger issues—like how the city couldn’t even hold on to a team as sorry and no-account as the Colts. The cats with a particularly keen sense of District history would, at seemingly the most damaging moment, recall that the Bullets had fled Baltimore for Washington.
I was pretty politically aware as a kid, but my mother’s students didn’t exactly make me a home rule advocate. Disenfranchise them all—the hell with ’em. But when I came to Washington to live, as a freshman at Howard, I decided that I’d try to open my mind a bit and give the District another chance. I figured that all that ribbing had had more to do with immaturity than real geographical rivalry.
I cannot tell you how wrong I was. This time, I got the ribbing and then some, but with a bourgeois edge. Howard cats couldn’t have cared less about the Colts. Instead, they’d take the statistical angle, pointing out that Baltimore had always ranked high in teen pregnancy and calling Charm City “the home of the original baby’s daddy.”
The most brutal attacks were reserved for my Baltimore accent—something I never even knew I had until I came to Washington. Folks would line up as if I were the bearded lady and ask me over and over to repeat words like “Eric,” “shoe,” and “stupid.” When I granted their requests, I was rewarded by seeing the people in front of me falling apart in fits of hysterical and pointed laughter. It was humiliating. A homegirl of mine from Baltimore literally lost her accent to avoid the wisecracks.
Howard heads may have been as much bougie as base, but the comebacks came from the same place as those of my mom’s students. In the minds of Howardites, District residents, and maybe the whole country, Baltimore is a ghost town, the most backward of America’s big cities, a place where the natives are so Ebonicized that they’ve turned the word “whore” into a verb.
White Washington yuppies may spend their afternoons daydreaming about Baltimore’s blue-collar aesthetic, but most black folks understand that Baltimore is the last place you want to be if you’re trying to change the world. Whereas Washington is the birthplace of Duke Ellington, Baltimore’s claim to artistic fame is the fact that Tupac Shakur stopped over in the city for a couple of years.
Socially conscious black folks are attracted to the District because of its numerous activist groups and agencies. The only big-time activist organization that is headquartered in Baltimore is the NAACP. It’s a perfect match, given that the NAACP has a franchise on living in the past—when’s the last time you heard “colored people” in polite conversation? Washington is a beacon for black people across the country who want to effect some sort of change. Baltimore is a death knell for same. And, in terms of intellectualism, Howard University may be a shadow of its former self, but it’s a dark-hued Harvard compared with Morgan State University.
I must say, for the record, that I’ve got hopes of making my way back to Baltimore someday, and it’s true that I’m in love with the city, if only because it’s my home. But I love Baltimore, to quote Derek Walcott, “the way poets love poetry or drowned sailors love the sea.” Baltimore offers all of the dilemmas of big-city life and almost none of the benefits. In most of America’s crime enclaves, such as New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there’s a nightlife or a scene or something to justify the hassle. Baltimore has a touristy harbor and decent seafood—which is supposed to justify its annual Top 10 ranking for murder and its legendary heroin problem.
This dilemma became apparent to me recently when the Washington City Paper staff was thinking of taking a trip to Baltimore. For half of the trip, I was supposed to take my colleagues to places where I hung out when I lived there. Problem was, when I lived in Baltimore, the only places I really hung out were Mondawmin Mall (think a smaller Pentagon City planted in the ‘hood) and my front porch. With the Inner Harbor and the museums ruled out, the only places I could really think to take the staff were restaurants. The fact of the matter was, with the exception of some row houses, liquor stores, and chicken and cheese-steak joints, there was no real Baltimore that I connected with.
Without any real attractions, Baltimore has developed an image that is almost exclusively derived from the negative. Mayor Kurt Schmoke tried to dub it “the City That Reads,” and former Mayor William Donald Schaefer created the moniker “Charm City.” But the catch phrase you’re most likely to hear about Baltimore, or B’More, is “Be More Careful”—an allusion to the city’s staggering crime rates.
Baltimoreans return the same slam in heaping portions. A decade of Rayful Edmond III and Marion Barry speaks for itself. But at least Washington has its native blues, go-go, to ease the pain. Baltimore has no local music. Even much of the city’s god-awful house music, which natives love, comes from Chicago.
Not surprisingly, no geographic region is in a rush to claim Baltimore. If all the cities were in a high school, Baltimore would be the leader of the Trenchcoat Mafia. Culturewise, it’s little more than a suburb of New York or Philadelphia. But people from those cities will tell you that Baltimore is a Southern city. Even Washington cats, in their quest to be hip, defy all geography and label Baltimore country. But when you ask people from places like Charleston, S.C., whether Baltimore is Southern, they answer with a wry smirk. Every year at Howard, students throw a Southern Players Ball—basically an entire night of overdressed men, underdressed women, and entirely too much Master P. On the fliers, the organizers list all kinds of Southern cities, from Miami to Houston to Atlanta. Baltimore is never listed. It’s the city that nobody, save its own swiftly dwindling population, wants to call his own.
It’s natural for any person who relocates to have some angst toward his hometown; he is, after all, a refugee of sorts. I love Chicago, but my girlfriend, who grew up there, insists that there’s nothing to see in the Windy City except men with perms. This from someone who now lives in Wilmington, Del. But truth be told, I’d take Baltimore over Washington any day. I love that in Baltimore I can actually hear Common or the Roots on the radio. I love that I say “Eric” with a slur and that I replace the “t” in “Baltimore” with a “d.” I love my junior prom picture, because my date’s hairdo extends almost a foot off her head. Whenever I go home, I have to smile whenever I see finger waves dyed purple. But I’m not under any illusions about the city’s so-called charms. I don’t think Baltimore belongs in the same sentence with the words “great city.” I love it because it’s home. CP
WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY “BALTIMORE”
The way D.C. talks about our northern neighbor says more about us than it does about them.
By Michael Schaffer
perhaps you’ve had that Baltimore conversation. I know I have, dozens of times: when a friend explained that he’d just gotten back from a daylong excursion up the highway; as I returned south late at night from Benjie’s, the recently shuttered drive-in theater on the edge of town; while a hipster neighbor campily downed a can of Natty Bo. Washington’s neighbor is scarcely invoked before the clichés all come pouring out about the frisson of encounter with a city brimming in genuineness while it eschews pretension.
You know, the Baltimore conversation.
I overheard my favorite variant, appropriately enough, at Camden Yards. My dad had good tickets on the third-base side. Three guys sidled in front of us in the Washingtonian interloper’s uniform: cell phone and flat belly, Dockers shorts and Amherst College baseball cap. And as we all waited for the game to get going, through the invocations of Boy Scout troops from Timonium and church groups from Rising Sun, they put the scene in context.
“Baltimore is, you know, such a real city,” they began…
Now, invoking some ineffable metropolitan “reality” is a tricky concept anywhere. Particularly when you’re in a $20 seat eating a $5 Italian ice. Particularly when the stadium you’re in was designed at ruinous expense to look like a piece of old-time industrial cityscape even while anchoring Baltimore’s entertainment-retail present. And particularly when that same Disney economy depends on, well, you—with your cash card and a D.C. income to back it up. Artifice is crucial to the Camden experience. But then again, it is also crucial to the Washingtonian notion of Baltimore.
Baltimore, for a certain stratum of Washington’s professional classes, is the Other—that inverse image that has more to do with our own self-perceptions than the truth about them. It is the hometown to our transient federal village. The ethnic town to our white-and-black blandness. It’s the blue collar to our casual Friday.
It’s the mechanic with the Stroh’s belt buckle who we suspect is calling us a faggot behind our back while he jumps our stalled Honda Civic in the parking lot of the stadium.
And that’s why we love it. For Washingtonians like me—the educated, the transient, the white, the content-providing—Baltimore represents an exercise in nostalgie de la boue, that romantic longing for a sleeveless-undershirted fantasy world we can never inhabit, and indeed might even get beat up if we tried to inhabit. Dig that local beer and them mutton chops! Dag, I bet there’s a great old rockabilly combo around here somewhere.
Never mind that the public face of Baltimore—where my little brother and I used to giggle from our parents’ D.C. Corolla at the fat people getting out of West Virginia beaters in the Memorial Stadium parking lot—has become a lot less industrial of late. And never mind that the public face is pretty much all most of us D.C.ers see, because we never visit those fabulously real neighborhoods on the far side of the Bromo Seltzer tower.
And while you’re at it, ignore the statistics, too. Like our city, Baltimore may be a troubled, racially segregated, service-strapped city where too many people have to rely on the crumbs of the tourist economy. Here in the stands, here in the good seats, perception is all that matters. The view from the lower reserved on a nice summer night practically requires it: They are Roc; we are Murphy Brown. Traveling 40 miles to watch a collection of mercenaries suck up Angelos’ millions requires that we travel to Someplace Else.
Of course, it also depends on what seats you have. After all, 227 was set here, too. Plenty of D.C. neighborhoods are as real and genuine and honest as the Charm City of myths. They’ve got the dads drinking beer on the stoop and the grandma wagging her finger at the younguns and the old dude who really thought he’d make it in the music business and the dusk-hour exhaustion that comes from working your ass off all day long. I know that not because I visit Park View and Congress Heights and Michigan Park for crabs and olde-time baseball, but because I have a job that draws me into worlds where—unlike the Baltimore of Washingtonian day trips—I have no social incentive to visit.
The problem is, the Rib Pit in Columbia Heights or the Saint’s Paradise Cafeteria in Shaw doesn’t offer the kind of ethnicity most D.C. whites have in mind when they go all sweaty about Balto’s neighborhoods. There are no pirogi, no Johnny Cash fans, and no beer-bellied beer servers whose asses spill over the top of their jeans when they bend over to fish you and your consulting-firm buddies another Natty Bo.
Much of the pleasantness of this city takes place in a Washington that our elites enter only when, say, they have to go to something such as their secretary’s mom’s wake. And that opportunity occurs a lot less frequently than the chance to score some choice O’s tickets.
Then again, it also represents a much longer cultural commute than the dash up I-95. CP