At a party held by a literary agent friend in New York many years ago, I met his son from Washington DC. In conversation, I found that he’d gotten his first job, at the Post. In making the case that his job carried some prestige, I asked him if he was sure of his place? Of course, he stated. Giggling, I again asked if the New York Post carried some sort of prestige? Waiting a moment for smug effect, he replied, “I work for the Washington Post.”
As the only native New Yorker in the conversation, I laughed harder while his friends from Washington demurred to him. Then, I reminded him that in New York, the Post meant the New York Post. He responded to my last quip with a confident stare. In truth, we both knew he didn’t have to respond at all. In moments like those, one never forgets the subtle slights that have everything to do with one’s class and status. Above us all, one is also reminded, float the few.
That same bel air may be inhabited by Marc Fisher with his recent travel column on Baltimore in the Washington Post. Though Fisher is from Manhattan, he writes complainingly from a perch usually associated with those raised in Georgetown, who seem never to have set foot on dirty pavement. These are people who rarely leave familiar surroundings. Folks who wait until the visiting Japanese art student with a miniature pinscher has moved to a trending neighborhood before uttering it’s name (Williamsburg or Station North anyone?). Having grown up in a Brooklyn that was far less schwanky than it is now, getting then Manhattanites to cross the river was similar to getting a meter maid to stop writing a parking ticket. Impossible.
At the behest of his editors, Fisher begrudgingly trooped north to Baltimore only to find what he and we already knew about the city. Baltimore has some good restaurants, museums, a walkable waterfront and relatively cheap if not free street parking in most of the city. For Fisher to come from a city with a true subway system and obsessively conclude his parking experience a minor miracle is to offer his hands for slapping by my first grade teacher, a marginally cruel Josephite named Sister Macrina. Though the practice is surely unwarranted concerning children, employing corporal punishment in public on educated adults is often the best way to shake them out of their presumed happy place.
Differences between the two cities abound. First, Washington D.C. has blossomed despite it’s city government. With the exception of Adrian Fenty as mayor and Cathy Lanier as police commissioner, citizens of that town have ridden out scandal after scandal as more of its underclass is helplessly pushed by gentrification across the Anacostia River.
Washington has risen as federal government spending has grown, beginning in the postwar years. The population in metropolitan D.C. has grown by more than 2 million people since 1970. Jobs in government and the private sector have raised the wealth of metropolitan D.C. immeasurably while most other eastern cities suffered backbreaking economic contractions. If the District had not grown its tax base and generic chic allure, we might ask Fisher what D.C. offered other than the 9:30 Club and the fantastic and free, government funded museums?
Baltimore is a Chevy city with a soft brooding melody best heard on the street during our unblessed summers. It hasn’t quite figured out how to get past black and white and into the color world. It’s leaders haven’t found the guts to fully challenged our poorest to breathe the rights of being great Americans or great human beings.
Baltimore City government acts more Republican in a Democratic electorate with each imprudent act in not seeing we can, nee must, rise together. Our leaders, like the GOP, insist on giving tax breaks to the already funded while the rest of Baltimore waits for jobs.
Through all this, Baltimore in the present day remains original. While city government is still doing slum clearance, a la 1982, we have a street muralist, Gaia, whose work adorns brick walls in ghettos from here to Johannesburg and Seoul. Gaia even has a mural on H Street to cheer up the federal folks in Washington.
Having the unabashed and innocent exuberance of grade schoolers at terms end in June, the Baltimore Rock Opera Society (BROS) has taken Rocky Horror theater to a new level of joy. With their oversized cast and live band fueled by Natty Boh, this happy breed undresses the young hipsters insistence on desperately trying to be cool. The BROS have also taken back the term ‘bro’ from the Waspy crowd of lacrosse playing, mullet wearing fashion followers of Abercrombie and Fitch. They are an unchaste crowd whose mission seems simple: elate, elate! This makes them almost religiously cool.
The Baltimore Farmer’s Market is, for my money, second to none. It’s also where all of Baltimore is represented on Sunday mornings, six months of the year. Rich and poor, black and white arrive in sweatpants and slippers, shopping carts and biker bags to fill up cheaply with Maryland’s bounty of locally grown produce. Unlike the newly minted Eastern Market in D.C. or Union Square in New York, our market is held under the metal and concrete rumblings of Interstate 83.
We have a kinetic sculpture race in the harbor each Spring and a book sale at Enoch Pratt Library each fall that draws hundreds of readers who come as families. We have radio callers who proudly identify themselves as ‘West Black Baltimore’ the way Italians in Philadelphia identify with the south side.
In this town, even the drug dealers say good morning and say ‘my bad’, knowing they are breaking a moral code. Our ‘Believe’ banners still stand all over town as a sign of our resolve, without worrying about the cynical visitor looking for an already finished product. Finally, we have John Waters and David Simon’s brilliant fictional filmwork that, for locals, comes off more as documentary than feature.
Baltimore is like Brooklyn when it was cool and only the natives saw through the rubble to the beauty of what could be. These days, New York and D.C. are suffering from a sameness of person who ventured to the big city after the hard work was done. As a result, both cities have become boring and safe. Unless one is an immigrant, moving to D.C. or New York is no longer the challenge it once was. For Americans, Baltimore is the challenge.
Finally, Yankee fans who come to Camden Yards this year will be on notice that success, like youth, is fleeting. Derek Jeter’s brilliant career is coming to an end and with it, perhaps the Yankees latest run of success. Visiting fans will meet with a young Oriole team and fan base that is ready to contend for a title as they have in era’s past. The Orioles will be riding the wave of success in fellow Baltimore athletes, the Ravens and Michael Phelps.
This season, Marc Fisher may at last find out what ‘O!’ in Orioles is all about. Instead of always arriving at a dinner table already set for him, he might learn what it takes to prepare the meal.
Robert Emmet Mara has been in Baltimore since 2006. A native New Yorker, Robert came to Baltimore to do three things: work with kids, renovate houses and write a second book of fiction. Since his arrival, he has managed to do all three and more.
He has sought better oversight for his still blighted Harwood neighborhood from the city and has been asked to speak to various community association leaders on the subject of city agency relations.