Saturday, February 8, 2014

Oh, Baltimore - Bruised, not Broken

When I was in college Randy Newman - one of my favorite singer/songwriters - released an album that brought him great commercial success.  More for it’s controversial subject matter than artistic excellence (it’s not remotely among my personal favorites of Newman’s work) the album “Little Criminals” lit up the single and album charts on the strength of its hit “Short People.”  Newman’s wicked social commentary on intolerance was misunderstood by many and the song written off as prejudice.  In his best work (notwithstanding his amazing body of soundtrack work that has netted him 20 Academy Award nominations) Newman grabs us by the scruff of the neck, shakes us to our senses and demands we look at the world and it’s many ills and our own reactions, and inaction.

While most of the nation raged over “Short People” a different wave of unrest arose in my beloved Baltimore.  Another song on the album, titled “Baltimore” related a depressing view of the city, with its beat-up seagulls, hookers, drunks and other allusions to a dying city that certainly no other city in America had experienced prior. It’s closing lyrics told the whole story...

          Live out in the country
  Where the mountain's high
  Never comin' back here
  ‘Til the day I die

Baltimore flipped out.  Politicians vilified Newman and the seemingly narrow-minded slant of the song.  People wrote letters.  Long-time city comptroller Hyman Pressman - as great a cheerleader for Baltimore City as there ever was - wrote a poem in response.  According to the book “Randy Newman's American Dreams” by Kevin Courrier, Newman himself admitted his entire experience of Baltimore to that point had been a single train ride through town.  Newman came to Baltimore to perform in concert and the city bent over backwards to show Newman the error of his ways.  The “controversy” displayed Baltimore at both its best and its worst.

A long time has passed since that wailing and gnashing of teeth in 1977.  We were slapped in the face by our football team sneaking away in the night, crime and poverty grew, and affluent exodus to the suburbs created an urban apartheid that the city still struggles with today.  In recent years the impression many outside the city have of Baltimore are the television programs “Homicide: Life on the the Street” and “The Wire.”  Without a doubt some of the best television created in the last few decades, but not the kind of work that makes people stand up and shout “Damn! I want to move to that town!”

This brings us to last week.  A blogger on posted an article which quickly gathered steam through Internet sharing.  Titled “Baltimore City, You’re Breaking My Heart,” it presented an angry, nihilist picture of the city as a “complete shit-hole war zone depending on what street you turn down.”   While the author made some valid points about crime in the city it seemed to me the majority of the “good” they saw was focused on particular bars and parks.  In a word, limited.  The photograph that heads the article of a dilapidated, run-down, boarded-up neighborhood in a deep blue hue completes the picture.

Well, that “neighborhood” doesn’t exist any more.  It’s an area of North Duncan Street that was uninhabited at the time of the photograph in preparation for a major renovation in that East Baltimore community.  And yes, I’m well aware of the challenges created by development that often pushes people out of their homes, raises property taxes to the point where those with limited means can’t maintain their residences, and gentrification of neighborhoods permanently changes the character of a town that many refer to as “Smalltimore” because of the wonderful vibe of tight-knit communities drawn together by ethnicity, religion, national origin or just plain love.

These are not challenges unique to Baltimore.  These are not challenges which are jump-starting a massive new exodus out of the city.  Yes, there is much work to be done.  Yes, crime and education and racism and poverty are huge problems we must continue to engage with and work towards meaningful solutions.

I will always be the “glass half-full” guy.  I prefer to look for signs of hope rather than harbingers of disaster.  I prefer to believe in the better angels of our nature rather than demons that drag us into darkness.  And I will always believe when we look at the world and act out of love rather than fear or anger good will triumph.  Maybe, as John Lennon wrote “I’m a dreamer” but I know through my encounters with people at all walks of life in the City of Baltimore I’m not the only one.

Damn, I love this town.  I can’t imagine living anywhere else...

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