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June 20, 2007

A City of Two Tales

If Baltimore seems stagnant, it is only because the city has been moving in opposite directions for so long. For every progressive, radical idea that will alleviate the city's major problems and raise its citizens' hopes, two problems spring up that bring those dreams crashing down. For instance, the city's slogan, "Baltimore, the City That Reads," had to be reconsidered in light of news that 38% of the adult population reads at the lowest literacy level.

So what realistically positive message did the city choose instead? "Baltimore, the Greatest City in America." The message is so out of touch with reality that the Baltimore Sun once printed readers' suggestions for more-truthful slogans. Among those suggestions: "Baltimore, Greatest City on the Chesapeake Bay"; and "Baltimore, the City with Weeds."

Baltimore's contradictions run much deeper than mere slogans. Anyone who watches The Wire on HBO knows that crime and drug-dealing are serious problems in Baltimore, but might not know that Baltimore was ranked by the FBI as the second most deadly city in America in terms of crime (sorry, Detroit). One city councilman has reacted to this ever-increasing crime wave with a radical plan to put the most troubled neighborhoods of the city under martial law. This plan has led to complaints from the ACLU and other human-rights groups. Baltimore, a city on the cutting edge of crime, fighting crime, and trampling human rights.

One reason Baltimore is the city of contradictions is its historical charms. This New York Times travel article celebrates Baltimore as a city that is "all grown up…a big city with a small-town feel." And while this tourist-friendly article can tell you were to get the best Maryland Blue Crab (Obrycki's is where the "discerning locals" go), it's naïve—or deluded—enough to refer to Baltimore's darker side as Edgar Allen Poe, not Avon Barksdale. Even Gelf has taken part in the great Balti-more or -less debate, running articles that praise and excoriate the city.

A friend of mine and Baltimore resident (OK, a Johns Hopkins student) describes the city like so: "Walking around the city at night, it's almost post-apocalyptic. It feels like a once-great city that was abandoned by its people, leaving behind statues and art museums as relics. And slowly, slowly, slowly, the people are coming back." Neighborhoods are gentrifying blocks away from the slums. A burgeoning Baltimore club music scene is gaining notice around the country (See: Deacon, Dan). The city parks are getting cleaner and greener. A biotech research center is going up in East Baltimore, part of the country's largest urban renewal project. Is it a new day in Baltimore? Or just one side of the familiar Baltimore equation?







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