Urbanite magazine wants to be part of Baltimore's 'post-unrest' conversation

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The Urbanite is back, if only for one edition.

Former Urbanite staff writer Lionel Foster wrote a heartfelt farewell when the free monthly magazine shut its doors in Woodberry for lack of money in September 2012.

"I'm young," Foster wrote in a column for The Sun. "I haven't been to many funerals, so I've spent a lot of time since (the announcement) thinking about how to say goodbye to a publication that evolved, for me, from a refreshing idea to an employer, and — if such a thing is possible with words and paper and pixels — a friend."

Three years later, Foster has picked up where he left off, along with the glossy magazine's former publisher, Tracy Ward, and some of its former contributing writers and designers.

The Urbanite is back, if only for one edition.

It's a special edition, at an estimated cost of $100,000, that will hit the streets Nov. 9. Like the monthly Urbanites of old, it is free and has a special theme — this time, "Truth, Reconciliation, and Baltimore," exploring the city's future after its recent racial unrest and riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in April.

The edition is coming out at a time when six police officers have been indicted in Gray's death and are awaiting trial.

Slightly smaller in size, with a heavier stock of paper and a better binding, the edition is designed to be a commemorative keepsake.

"We wanted it to have a longer shelf life," Ward said.

Foster is co-editing the issue with former Urbanite contributors David Dudley, of Keswick, and Greg Hanscom, of Seattle, Washington, and is serving as a media contact. Ward, who now heads the Easton Economic Development Corp., is reprising her role as publisher. Developer Bill Struever, once a major investor in Urbanite until the recession in 2008, is again lending a financial hand, along with the Annie E. Casey and Abell foundations, among other philanthropies.

And there are advertisers, including Park School and defense contractor Northrup Grumman.

Foster, who wrote the issue's lead story, interviewing three generations of local activists about the prospects for racial peace, believes a troubled history of race relations spurred Baltimore's unrest. But he also thinks the Urbanite can play a role in helping the city that he used to write about and called home.

Other stories in the issue include pieces on Gray and the forces that shaped him, and a profile of West Baltimore's mostly black Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

"I feel great," said Foster, 35, who now lives and works in Washington, D.C., as communications manager for a public policy research firm, and helped write and edit the 68-page special issue remotely in his spare time. "When the unrest happened, one of the things I heard from people was, 'Baltimore is breaking my heart right now.' I felt like a lot of things we refused to face (about race) were bubbling to the surface. I wanted to be at least a small part of something that could help."

Three thousand miles away, Hanscom and his wife, Tara Thompson, were glued to their TV in April, watching the rioting helplessly and thinking they needed to move back to Baltimore to help the city.

"It was heartbreaking to see that," said Hanscom, 43, who worked for Urbanite from 2007-11, the last two years as editor in chief. The couple moved out west to be closer to Hanscom's native Utah, but he said it was nothing against Urbanite, which he considered "a breath of fresh air" at a time when he felt like a burned-out journalist and had even enrolled in a paramedic training class at Baltimore City Community College.

"Then I picked up a copy of Urbanite one day and said, 'This is something I could get behind.' It was a brand of journalism unlike anything in the city," Hanscom said. "It looked at the city's problems square in the eye and then went one step more and looked for solutions."

Optimistic with a bullhorn

The magazine was founded as The Urbanite in the late 1990s by Laurel Harris Durenberger. She sold it in 2004 to Ward, who dropped the "The" and gave it a glossy cover, among other substantive changes.

In its prime, Urbanite, with its eye-catching cover art, scintillating stories and a price you couldn't beat, was a familiar sight in North Baltimore and around the city, including at stores in Hampden, Roland Park and Charles Village. In 2004, Urbanite reached 21 ZIP codes and had 2,350 subscribers, and its high-minded monthly themes ranged from urban gardening to regional architecture to whether suburbs were becoming the new cities. For that one, the magazine's name was changed to "Suburbanite."

Race and violence have been themes several times, including in February 2010, when Dudley wrote of a shared sense of optimism about race relations in the wake of Barack Obama's election as president.

Dudley, 47, admitted that it hasn't panned out.

"We were optimistic by nature," he said with a rueful chuckle last week, working from home on Wingate Road for his job as an editor for AARP The Magazine. "But you have to admit, (unrest in Baltimore) was not something people saw coming."

Dudley is still an optimist and hopes the special issue will go beyond "the daily drama," as reported by the Sun and the national media. He said his expectation for the special edition is "to create an atmosphere of racial healing" and "use this crisis to move the city forward."

Toward that end, the cover of the special edition is of a bullhorn. And in one section, the public weighs in with ideas for "fixing the city," culled from a solicitation process that began this past summer on the magazine's website, www.urbanitebaltimore.com, Dudley said.

Bringing back the Urbanite for a special issue was the brainstorm of Struever, whose former development company, Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, was well known in North Baltimore for projects, including redevelopment of the Belvedere Square shopping center. Struever Bros. collapsed under the weight of the recession in 2009, leaving projects such as The Olmsted, a planned condominium complex in Charles Village, in the lurch. (Johns Hopkins University has since bought the property, in the 3200 block of St. Paul Street, and is developing a mixed-use retail and apartment project in conjunction with Armada Hoffler and the Beatty Development Group.)

"We need to be looking for opportunities to rally the community" in the wake of unrest, said Struever, who has since formed a new development company, Cross Street Partners. "One of the original purposes of Urbanite was to create a forum for open and honest dialogue about the city's challenges and create a shared sense of purpose. That voice is largely missing."

Struever called Ward, a former longtime community activist and former director of the Charles Village Community Benefits District and the Belair-Edison Housing District. Ward had published the magazine with "aging hippies" as her target audience and helping a struggling Baltimore as her mission. In her introduction of her first issue as publisher, she wondered "how a city of 650,000 allows its schools to under-perform, housing stock to deteriorate, stream beds to fill with waste and open space to remain unclaimed for recreation. Baltimore is a city filled with talented people. I wondered whether we are doing enough."

Ward, 49, now lives on the Eastern Shore, but was in town last week for a board meeting of the Charles Village-based Center for Emerging Media, a nonprofit media production company whose signature production is the Mark Steiner Show on the radio.

She said she jumped at the chance to publish what she calls "a post-unrest" edition of the magazine.

"I've certainly been following this and feeling concerned," she said. "It never crossed my mind that Urbanite might play a role."

She reached out to the original staff and they convened online.

"Everyone was 100 percent behind it," she said. "The team is passionate about the project. They really put forth an incredible effort. I was excited because everybody else was excited."

'Go deep and get wonky'

The excitement wasn't entirely altruistic. Beyond helping Baltimore, the former Urbanites also were intrigued about reconnecting with a magazine that they used to love working for.

"It was kind of a dream job," Dudley said. "It was a very ambitious publication that was trying to do something different."

"I'm here because of the start I got at Urbanite," said Foster, who broke into journalism as a paid staff writer for Urbanite. "I think people liked having a place where they could think deep thoughts (and) where they could be inspired.".

Reprising the well-remembered magazine was its own reward. Although some people were paid for their work, others did it for what Dudley called "the love of the game," as well as what Ward called "the desire for a dialogue about what's going on in Baltimore."

The goal was to "go deep and get wonky," Dudley said. "All our Rolodexes are still here."

But putting out a magazine remotely using mostly contributors, the Internet and special collaborative software proved to be a logistical challenge.

"It was very nostalgic and also a little terrifying," Foster said.

"This is all done on nights and weekends by people who have real jobs," Dudley said. "It was kind of a fun experiment to see if you could do that in this day and age."

"We had to do things on our weekend time, our vacation time," Ward said.

More to come?

For now, no more editions of Urbanite are planned.

"It's one-off," said Ward, adding that she tried in vain to find a buyer for the debt-ridden magazine before she ceased publication "gracefully" in 2012, after her nine years as publisher, but kept the Urbanite trademark.

"I can't rule out future issues, but there's no intent right now," she said. "I think there are editors who are interested, but this is a very difficult business. That was a tough nine years."

"It was always a tough business proposition," Dudley said. "The recession didn't help. Anyone will tell you that putting out a glossy monthly magazine and giving it away is tricky."

But Dudley harbors some hope of keeping Urbanite alive, perhaps as a biannual publication and online.

"We'll see how we're received," he said. "I think there's a case that it could live on."

"It was a great sadness to me when Urbanite closed," said Struever, the main investor. "I'm an old-fashioned guy. I think absolutely there's a role for Urbanite. It would need someone to invest in it and champion it. If there's a gang of people who wanted to get together and talk about it, I'd be there."

When Ward called Hanscom in Seattle, told him she had an offer of funding for one issue and asked, "Are you game?" he was so excited that he quit his job as editor of an environmental news website and spent last summer laying the groundwork for the issue — and doing some fundraising.

Now editor of crosscut.com, a Seattle-based news site that he wants to make more like Urbanite, Hanscom said he hopes Urbanite will continue beyond one issue.

"I really hope this is not the end for Urbanite," he said.

"I do not know what the future of Urbanite is," said Foster, "but I like the response we've gotten from folks who know about the (upcoming) issue. How that plays out, I simply don't know, but I'm so glad I was part of it."

And if nothing else, Foster said, the special edition will hopefully make a lasting impression.

"I think we laid out for the city some of the things they're going to have to grapple with, and I'm proud of that," he said.

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