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Changing Baltimore's storyline [Commentary]

Stephen ColbertThe Wire (tv program)EcosystemsConservationUnder Armour Inc.Johns Hopkins University

While describing the potentially devastating effects of climate change during a recent segment of "The Colbert Report," host Stephen Colbert warned that if climate change continues unabated, much of the planet will turn into an uninhabitable wasteland, just like — wait for it — Baltimore. With abandoned row homes featured in the inset, the serious implication of Mr. Colbert's jest was clear: Baltimore, the epitome of urban decay, is unlivable and unsalvageable.

While the segment failed to make me laugh, it did make me think. Why does the pernicious myth of Baltimore decay persist? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

Our frustration with Mr. Colbert's depiction of Baltimore as a troubled "wasteland" is maddening. And while I would urge a little intellectual honesty about this portrait of our complex American city, the fact is portrayals of Baltimore, including "The Colbert Report's" recent segment, are part of the city's popular identity. We cannot hide from it nor deny it. Throughout the world, Baltimore is, more often than not, known only for its role as the drug-riddled city shown in five seasons of very compelling television on HBO's "The Wire." In the United States, colleges and universities, including a class led by the talented Dr. Peter Beilenson at Johns Hopkins University, have devoted entire courses to analyzing Baltimore through this prism.

However, Baltimore is going some place else, and Baltimorean's know there is a more nuanced portrait to reveal and story to tell about this complex yet charming city. Let's move beyond our frustration at comedic digs like Mr. Colbert's. Instead of using our energy to repeat a tired "That's not true," let's seize the tremendous opportunity in front of us. By focusing less on the merits of "The Wire" or the accuracy of a comedian's segment, we can invest our effort in translating Baltimore's popular appeal into a 21st century urban renaissance. It is within reach to demonstrate what "right" can look like to us, and the world.

We are a city of tremendous assets and our many, many examples of excellence point the way forward. Take Rodney Foxworth Jr., the Baltimore Manager of Bme who supports black male entrepreneurs across the city to shift the discussion from a tired lecture on the deficits of black men to a conversation about our tremendous individual and community assets. Or Scott Burkholder and Michael Owen who, through the Baltimore LOVE Project — murals of four hands spelling out the word 'love" painted throughout the city — have changed our physical environment time and again to redefine what we cherish and underscore Baltimore's greatest export. I am heartened by Digit All Systems, a non-profit that breaks through silos by collaborating with local business to provide communities the skills and systems necessary to bridge the "digital divide."

Our communities are leading every single day, turning the sad "wasteland" narrative on its head. We should tell those stories.

We should tell the stories of the work being done around Northwood, the revitalization taking place in East Baltimore, and the community based redevelopment in Remington and Hampden. Tell the stories of the veterans living and working in Oliver, who are mobilizing to not simply support a community, but reinvent their mission. Tell the stories of Vince Talbert, a founder of Bill Me Later and Chairman of Network For Good, who is helping non-profits to crowd-fund and increase their impact. Or musician Darin Atwater, whose Soulful Symphony simultaneously gives us praise, smiles and inspiration. And Under Armour, a likely contender for the Fortune 500, whose slogan "Protect this House" has become an unofficial city motto. Tell the stories of libraries and community spaces at Samuel Coleridge bringing together hundreds of community partners to invest in our children. The EMT program at Douglass that is certifying our young people to save lives.

Our city is tough and gritty. Our citizens are loyal and tenacious. We are proud of that and don't want to lose that. But as the old adage goes, if you do not control your own narrative, somebody else will.

And we have an audience and, potentially, new stakeholders in our success. Because of television shows like "The Wire," or even Mr. Colbert's segment, Baltimore receives new and even first looks every single day. For a city with a population of a little more than 600,000, our name recognition punches well above its weight. Is there a global fascination with Cleveland? Charlotte? San Jose? No offense to any of those cities — they are great in many ways — but we have a singular opportunity to transform a popular narrative of hardship into an inspiring story of renewal.

Let's bring our nation on our journey of urban renewal that they will not only be fascinated by but deeply care about.

Wes Moore is the New York Times best selling author of "The Other Wes Moore" and an entrepreneur. He can be reached on Twitter at @wesmoore1.


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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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