Archive for the ‘Baltimoronic’ Category

Baltimoronic Part 8

August 25, 2010

This brings us to the point of our little tirade, which is this: Peace cannot be willed upon Baltimore.  The malignant spirit of Poe hangs heavily over the Charm City like a coastal fog or marshlands miasma.  If Baltimore’s reputation, nay, its destiny, is a violent one, why not play it to the hilt?  Is it not better to be feared than ignored?  Put up Poe’s likeness so that it’s looming everywhere.  Offer The Wire-themed armored-car tours of the city’s meanest streets, or a Homocide survey of its most notorious crime scenes.  Acknowledge, no, embrace how the city appears to the outside world: as the grubby little bastard-child of the megapolis, as “The City That Bleeds.”

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Baltimoronic Part 7

August 18, 2010

What then is the face that Baltimore wants to show the world?  That would be its signature skyline, the Inner Harbor.  Since 1980, an ongoing project to revitalize the historic waterfront has yielded up a crown jewel for the city’s tourism industry.  Attempting to counter the random spates of violence against tourists with an overwhelming police presence, the city has followed the Giuliani-Bloomberg model for urban renewal, effectively turning the Inner Harbor into a Disneyfied suburban oasis whose tranquility is maintained at gunpoint.  Nevertheless, as temperatures rise and tempers flare, bloodshed inevitably visits this supposedly family-friendly locale.

Baltimoronic Part 6

August 11, 2010

When in 1996 Cleveland’s NFL franchise moved to Baltimore and took for its mascot the eponymous creature of Poe’s most famous poem, the Charm City came closest to acknowledging its cultural debt to the macabre genius.  But although the organization was open about from whence its name came, it made little effort to associate itself with the figure of E.A. Poe.  Perhaps this reluctance can be ascribed to the anti-intellectual ethos that predominates in sports, but I would argue that it also had something to do with both Poe’s work and the man himself.  When I visited the Edgar Allan Poe National Historical Site in Philadelphia (a much better operation than the Poe House in Baltimore), I came across a curious pamphlet in the vestibule.  It was an amateurish affair put out by some patriotic Poe society.  What it averred was that Poe was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict, for he could not have ascended to the heights in American letters, prose and poesy that he did had he been one.  This pamphlet also swore to Poe’s sound mental health.  Apparently (according to the pamphlet), the French Decadents (Baudelaire, for instance), who so admired Poe, corrupted his legacy by painting him in their own image.  It is this Francophone Poe (alcoholic, opium-addled, insane) that I think the Ravens and city of Baltimore are hesitant to engage with.  Poe’s work, particularly his pioneering detective fiction, also gives these institutions pause, as they both have had their share of problems with violent crime.  You won’t find Poe’s face on buses and billboards in Baltimore (as you would see that of Joyce in Dublin) because to over-publicize the city’s ties to Poe would only reaffirm its reputation as America’s murder capital.  Hence, the squeamish city council that just wants us to “Believe” is wary of Poe paraphernalia; the writer’s former home is left to molder amidst the housing projects.

Baltimoronic Part 5

August 5, 2010

“Baltimore” is an Anglicization of Baile an Tí Mhóir, Irish for “Town of the Big House.”  Whenever I am reminded of this, I recall my time in the Irish capital and contrast it with my experience in Baltimore.  Where in Baltimore can one find, for instance, the face of Francis Scott Key (native Marylander and author of the “Star Spangled Banner”)?  Or that of his second cousin, three times removed, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who lived in Baltimore for some time)?  And what of the stony visage of Gertrude Stein (who while studying in Baltimore found the model for her future Parisian salons in the home of sisters Claribel and Etta Cone)?  Perhaps it was a holdover from the centenary Bloomsday celebration, but when I was in Dublin in 2004 the face of James Joyce was everywhere I turned, and he didn’t even spend the majority of his life there (although, granted, even at its most oneiric, his fictional universe remained tethered to that city).

Where in Baltimore can one find the face of its own resident genius, Edgar Allan Poe?  (Boston, Philadelphia and Richmond also profess ownership of Poe’s legacy, but Baltimore is where Poe died, an ignoble and possibly violent death, no less; this fact has to trump the claims of all other contenders.)  There’s a small statue, newly commissioned, on the campus of the university, but little else.  His former residence is open to the public, but it is located in a neighborhood so rundown and shady that it gets few visitors.  (But perhaps Poe would have wanted it that way.)  The Wire plays this up brilliantly in Season 3 with an opening dialogue between two prepubescent toughs.  One relates to the other of how a white tourist asked him how to get to the “Poe house,” to which he replied, without irony, that the “po’ [i.e., poor] house” was everywhere around him.  When the tourist insisted, the tough replied, “I don’t know no Edgar Allan Poe!”  The tourist was dispirited: “The man look at me all sad and shit, like I let him down.”  And rightfully so.  Even peasants in the most remote corners of the Russian taiga can unfailingly quote lines of Pushkin.  Baltimore’s public schools, which are among the worst in the nation, are, in a physical sense, so close to centers of enlightenment like Johns Hopkins, and yet they represent a corner of existence far more obscure than Siberia.  Countless are the Baltimoreans who haven’t heard of Edgar Allan Poe, let alone the provenance of the name of Baltimore’s football team, the Ravens.

Baltimoronic Part 4

July 30, 2010


“Where’d you go to school?”  The intellectual horizons of the Charm City are delimited by its most common barroom question.  While it might sound innocent enough, it is in fact quite insidious, for, if you are from “out-of-town” it is impossible to answer correctly.  Let’s say you went to college, which seems to be the thing to do these days.  You’ll no doubt supply the name of your alma mater, and, if you happen to be one of the elect chosen for graduate school, then you might mention something about that, as well.  To their credit, Baltimoreans are usually unflappably polite, and so your interlocutor won’t belabor your faux pas, but that isn’t to say he didn’t notice it.  “What faux pas?” you might ask.  You see, reader, you don’t understand “Baltimoron” (i.e. “Baltimorese”), the local patois.  He wasn’t interested in where you got your B.A.  What he really wanted to know was which Baltimore-area high school you went to.  You didn’t go to high school in Baltimore, you say?  You’ve just proven yourself to be beyond the pale.  It’s called “Smalltimore” for a reason.

Sitting on a turbid arm of the Chesapeake Bay known as the Patapsco River, Baltimore is quite far from the ocean proper, but it nevertheless claims to be a maritime city.  This is actually rather fitting, as Baltimore has the insularity of an island city-state, standing somehow apart from the North, the South, and the Midwest, as well.  In point of fact, Baltimore is an amalgam of the accents, attitudes and architectures of these three regions, and yet it is the sad fate of the Baltimoron that he is welcomed nowhere other than Baltimore.  Any propinquity that he may have to the character of one region is rendered illegible by the influence of the others.

Baltimoronic Part 3

July 29, 2010

As a young man, I yearned for a quintessential Baltimore experience in which I could partake; the media seemed to suggest that this experience was violence, but, alas, I was a pacifist.  Waters’ films offered some non-violent alternatives, but they made me understandably squeamish.  Barry Levinson’s Diner was supposed to be my salvation.  Baltimore was known for its diners, was it not?  Were we not, my friends and I, participating in an authentic Baltimore experience when we got drunk and went to a diner?  I thought so, that is, until I found myself doing the exact same thing while at college in Philadelphia.  By that time, my classmates and I had come under the influence of Swingers, and thus our bibulous diner-dining was much more an homage to Vince Vaughn and Vegas than to Kevin Bacon and Baltimore.

Baltimoronic Part 2

July 28, 2010

Baltimore has an image problem.  Yes, there’s its reputation for drug violence and political corruption, but I’m referring to a problem more dire: the problem of having hardly an image to speak of.  Consider the other major cities of the megapolis, the northern I-95 corridor.  There’s D.C. and NYC, the capital de jure and the capital de facto.  Mention these cities to virtually anyone on earth and they’ll be able to tell you something about them.  In terms of notoriety, Philadelphia and Boston are on the second tier, but for even the most benighted American their names conjure up some cinematic and patriotic associations.  And then there’s Baltimore.  Or perhaps there isn’t.  Perhaps, with fewer than one million people, Baltimore doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as this exclusive company.  Perhaps we’ve been annexed, or rather, subsumed, by the greater metropolitan area of D.C. (a city which, prior to the New Deal, was a relative backwater to Baltimore in terms of both size and culture).  I would argue otherwise, that there is a third tier of the megapolis, and that Baltimore alone is on it, if for no other reason than the sophomoric one that it has major league franchises in two of the “big four” sports.

Maybe it’s not so much that Baltimore lacks an image as that it has an esoteric one.  It’s probably best known as a hotbed for lacrosse and the blue crab, a sport that few know how to play, and an animal that, in its whole form, few know how to eat.  (The crab cake was no doubt invented for the tourist tyros who couldn’t pick clean their crabs.)  Its resident media icon is John Waters, whose films (aside from Hairspray) few know how to appreciate.  No, Baltimore is not a media darling like its larger neighbors, but it has been the setting for, most notably, Homocide and The Wire, both of which were creations of true crime writer and journalist David Simon.  Getting In, a 1994 film starring Andrew McCarthy and Kristy Swanson (Dave Chappelle had a bit part.), focuses on a Baltimore landmark, the ultra-competitive Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, but, of course, since this is Baltimore, “the price of admission is murder.”

Baltimoronic Part 1

July 27, 2010

Some years back, the city of Baltimore rolled out a public relations campaign: “Baltimore: The City That Reads” was emblazoned across the backs of municipal benches.  The wags soon descended with sharpies in hand, and Baltimore was rechristened “The City That Bleeds,” an epithet no doubt inspired by its preeminent homicide rates.  Apparently reeling from this riposte and having all but given up, the city council tried “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America,” an appellation so insipid, so uninspired, so patently unfelt that at best it could be taken as irony.  A longer-lived but no less vague slogan was, simply, “Believe.”  Thinking that they were on to something, the city council commissioned banners and billboards bearing this imperative, but Baltimore’s savvier citizens couldn’t help but notice the unnerving Big Brotherishness of it all, an impression that was only furthered by the ominous white lettering on a black field.  What was it exactly that we were to believe, anyway?  That Mayor Shelia Dixon wasn’t embezzling gift cards intended for needy families?