Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 8, 2007

In Defense of Bmore

Why does my city get a bad rap from geographic supremacists?

Adam Rosen

Riding comfortably in a limousine, a group of art-world sophisticates dispatched from New York abruptly interrupts their bantering to marvel at a tired rowhouse in one of Baltimore's less desirable neighborhoods. "It's almost sexual!" gasps a turtlenecked member of the entourage, flabbergasted by the sight of the simple rectangular housing unit, the city's historical counterpart to New York's Lower East Side tenement. One man's trash, as they say, is another man's treasure, and "Baltimore"—both the concept and the place—is the latest discovery of New York art society.

A line of rowhouses on 34th Street in Hampden, the spiritual home of John Waters and the setting for many of his films. Photo by Adam Rosen.
Not southern enough to love NASCAR, not northern enough to hate it, we've long been a paradoxical bunch, and, consequently, an easy target.

A line of rowhouses on 34th Street in Hampden, the spiritual home of John Waters and the setting for many of his films. Photo by Adam Rosen.

The above events aren't real, but a creation of famous filmmaker John Waters, a Baltimore native, in the cheerfully innocuous (by his standards) mid-90's flick, Pecker. Trading shock value for satire, Pecker tells the story of aspiring young photographer—called "Pecker" because he pecks at his food like a bird—who gets drafted to the big leagues of the art world after his exhibition at a local sub shop in Hampden, then an eccentric, working-class Baltimore neighborhood. Overnight, Pecker's candid shots of "ordinary" city life—two of which, capitalizing on Waters' trademark employment of hyperbole, include rats fornicating and the untamed nether regions of a stripper—propel him to darling status within New York's polite set. But almost as quickly as he rises, naive young Pecker inevitably falls, just the latest victim of a savagely capricious institution.

The unfailingly astute Waters cleverly illustrates, with Pecker, the dysfunctional relationship between America's elite metropolises and the rest of its cities. If we're not being written off as culturally inferior or invoked as an ominous reminder of urban affliction (think what comes to mind after hearing the word "Detroit"), we lesser ZIP codes serve only as amusing objects of fleeting artistic interest for our patronizing geographic superiors. I, for one, am not particularly aroused by the blocky façade of an early 20th-century immigrant abode, but to an insulated critic from the Upper East Side (one who is fictitious but not implausible), this extraordinary site may very well have a raw, carnal quality about it. If he says so.

This inter-city crossfire explains why shows set in Baltimore like The Wire and its predecessor, Homicide: Life on the Street, and musicals like Hairspray are on HBO, NBC, and Broadway, while shows like One on One, a comedy about a middle-class black family, was on the UPN, a network anchored by reruns of Malcolm in the Middle. (One on One got left behind when its former network home was merged into the new CW.) The logic, apparently goes like this: If it's not New York, Los Angeles, or occasionally Chicago, ordinary citizens concerned with the regular trivialities of modern American life just don't exist, or at least aren't telegenic.

Yes, we have violence and poverty in parts of Baltimore. You'll have to find it in your hearts to forgive us for living out a legacy of deindustrialization and neglect, and for the sins of possessing neither Bergdorf Goodman nor Fred Segal, neither a world-renowned edifice nor even an acceptably high Starbucks-to-general-population ratio. As a consequence of this dearth of highly coveted status symbols, cities like Baltimore or Tampa are cast down upon (including in a recent article in Gelf entitled "Balti-less"), unable to distinguish themselves but for outrageous crime rates, bizarre antics, or, occasionally, sports achievement. Even then, these cities are lauded for improbably overcoming their free-spending, big-city competitors rather than appreciated on their merits.

That New York fraternities and sororities, New York parties, and even New York-dominated classes actually existed at the Midwestern University I attended testifies to the geographism committed against those living outside of Rome. Sure, this type of behavior was also exhibited by some students from LA, Chicago or Miami—or New Jersey or any other suburban community referred to with the definite article (e.g. The Valley, The Island)—but New Yorkers maintained the highest representation within this oligarchy and sat smugly upon its throne.

As just a boy from Baltimore, I'm pretty darn—or should I say dang—far down the line. Not southern enough to love NASCAR, not northern enough to hate it, we've long been a paradoxical bunch, and, consequently, an easy target. Steel skeletons pepper downtown in the city's largest development boom in recent memory, yet vacant properties number in the thousands. Maryland's outgoing Governor is Republican, yet Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in the state and four to one in Baltimore. It's fitting, then, that our greatest contribution to American humor may be the embodiment of such pervasive contradiction: the legendary transvestite and longtime Waters protagonist, Divine.

Baltimore Museum of Art
Adam Rosen
Even the New York art snobs from Pecker would have appreciated the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has works from Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Warhol, and Rodin.
Despite the rapid yuppie occupation of a few choice neighborhoods, Baltimore is still grounded in the values of Divine: heterodoxy, a healthy sense of self-deprecation, and—certainly most affronting to sophisticates everywhere—a positive disposition. Living gleefully amongst our own depravity, we quaff $1 National Bohemian beers, munch "Crab Chips" (potato chips spiced with Old Bay seasoning), stuff our faces with Berger's saturated-fat-slathered chocolate cookies, and live only for Sunday, when our beloved team of ex-convicts (otherwise known as the Ravens, not to be confused with the Bengals) takes the field and marauds its helpless opponent amid frenzied approbation.

Those of us who fit into the above scheme of Baltimore life long ago found it exhausting being so refined. Unlike them fancy folk in other places, we, like Divine, get the joke—even if it's on us. If gritty native son Carmelo Anthony, currently the NBA's leading scorer, and serving a 15-game suspension for throwing a punch in a game, exemplifies the city of his upbringing, then slick, Italian-speaking Kobe Bryant, who grew up in a wealthy Philly suburb, represents the glamorous burgs. And look what happened to Kobe.

Still, Bmore, as the city is affectionately referred to by 'Melo, doesn't at all lack for respectable city attributes if you make an effort to look past the sterile tourist nucleus in the Inner Harbor. There's Little Italy, one of the oldest Italian enclaves in the country; the Baltimore Museum of Art's Picassos; the Peabody Institute’s child prodigies; Reservoir Hill's Queen Anne architecture; and the like.

Besides the play, there's ample study and work here. People come to Baltimore the world over to study at Johns Hopkins or the University of Maryland, and they come from all over the country to work at Legg Mason. Rather ironically given that they've relocated to the city of their ire precisely because of the opportunity afforded them by it, geographic supremacists arrive in Baltimore with an FBI uniform crime report in one hand and a ticket back home in the other. After years of being sophisticated into submission, they simply can't accept any place that has the gall to serve a drink for under $10. Baltimore has its rightful charms (and not just the wide variety of heroin), but if you have no desire to see them, you simply won't.

Adam Rosen is to this day recovering from the fallout after he innocently popped in a DVD of John Waters' immortal Pink Flamingos—modestly dubbed "the filthiest film ever made"—during a party in high school. On the weekends he likes to drive around blasting Baltimore's homegrown hip-hop/electronic sound, known simply as Bmore Club, all the while pretending the MCs are all shouting him out. After his great-great-grandparents on both sides bypassed Ellis Island in steerage, they settled in row homes in East Baltimore. Like H.L Mencken, Adam has worked at the Baltimore Sun—though Mencken never covered the opening of a local Starbucks.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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- World
- posted on Feb 22, 07

I wrote the scathing piece (Balti-less) as a tongue and cheek take on the worst the city had to offer. Ironically, or not if you got the original intent of my article, I agree with almost everything you wrote in your piece ‘In Defense of Bmore’...well except the part where you essentially called me a New York snob "sophisticated into submission".
I do believe comparing our takes on the city is akin to the comparison of apples and oranges. You’re talking Hampden, I was talking Lexington market. You’re talking Legg Mason and I'm talking the Upper Deck. I guess that's why it was a defense piece?
Less we forget I'm a small town girl from Northeastern PA (pizza without standing) I know what it's like to live in the shadows of the bigger city. New Yorkers are flooding the areas around where I grew up as weekend get-aways, charmed by the six dollar hair cuts and people who still teach their 9-year-olds to hunt small game.
I know nothing about art, film, or being a New York elite. I do know about hometown pride (both small town Tomato Capital of the World and New York attitude) and safety, neither of which Baltimore can truly boast. My piece was venomous and written in a hyperbolic tone, yes. I just can't take everything so seriously. But did I lie?
Also, let's keep in mind that Baltimore is a big city, miles upon miles, incorporating a variety of different neighborhoods from scary to miraculous. I still make the trip to the outer edges of B'more to see my specialist at Hopkins, she's hands down the best in the field, but that doesn't mean that I still couldn't be afraid to walk to my building from the parking lot at night. Apples and Oranges my friend, apples and oranges (or Guns and Hopkins; Heroine and Ravens, Stabbings and Bay View Medical Center...)

- World
- posted on Feb 23, 07

Andrea -

I too agree with much of what you said, and can't reasonably find fault with many of your points. (Though I found it odd excoriating a place on the basis of parallel parking abilities). In fact, I bet you noticed that I didn't rebut most of your accusations. You are correct – like its corporate namesake, ESPNzone and its Inner Harbor confines are predictably sterile, in the formula of Times Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, et al. But what of good old Lexington Market? As gentrification increases, the likes of Applebee’s and Fuddruckers can only proliferate ever more –– so archetypically old-school and un-commercial Lexington Market has reason to be exalted. I hold it in similar esteem to Hampden.

While utilizing a major player like Legg Mason to make a point may be imbalanced – as you say, “comparing apples to oranges” – I think it’s a fair card to play. If someone hates on NY because of how filthy the subway is do you extol the superior virtues of the Long Island Railroad? No, you bring out the big guns. You mention the Flatiron Building; Chinatown; even Scarlet Johansson, if you must.

At any rate, the bulk of my dissension lay more in what I perceived to be fairly standard - and unfortunate - outsider protocol: dwelling excessively on the city's bad points while making nary an effort to unearth its, er, charms.

The intent wasn't to admonish you personally, just the cosmopolitan out-of-towner (or even more insidiously, those would-be cosmopolitan out-of-towners from other second or third tier cities) whose mind is made up before they even cross city limits. Again, you're completely right – I don't know anything about you. And it wasn’t my intention to go after you as a snob. I look at it more like your piece set the stage and perfectly introduced the topic. Extrapolating from there, I could highlight the most extreme examples of this behavior (at least the ones I'm most familiar with) and use that as object of my ire.

And on the issue of hometown pride…I’d have to respectfully disagree. Just one example: reporting on Nancy Pelosi’s recent ascendance to third in line for Presidential succession, the Sun writes:

“All of Little Italy seemed to have turned out yesterday for what one observer called 'The Return of the Prodigal Hon.' "


Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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