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Conflicts of Interest: A tale of two Charlies

The other day at brunch, a guy sitting on the other end of the bar at Tavern on the Hill asked me what I was reading. It was an advance copy of  “Man in Profile,” Thomas Kunkel’s biography of the great literary reporter, Joseph Mitchell. I was almost done, though it doesn’t come out until April, so I was delighted to have someone who might want to talk about it. “My girlfriend’s an archivist,” he said after a short chat. “But I’m just a performing artist.” 

It turned out that the guy was Charlie Bethel, whose rendition of the “Odyssey” at Theatre Project was one of this year’s top 10 plays. He did “Beowulf” last year and was still in town doing “The Seven Poor Travellers,” bot also at Theatre Project. I was quite excited and had much to ask him. I missed the show—even though I had jealously guarded that review for myself—because I ended up on a cover story about the protests and sent Geoffrey Himes to review it instead. But I wanted to know what Bethel, an itinerant actor much like the rhapsodes who originally sung the Homeric epics, thought about “The Odyssey.” 

“I’ll finish my ray of sunshine with you,” he said and slid down the bar, bringing with him a half-beer half-orange juice concoction that he called a ray of sunshine. We chatted for a few minutes and he invited me to the show, which I regrettably had to decline. But when he left, his presence stuck with me. The bartender, Jack, said he’d been coming in a lot and I was struck by the lonesomeness of his craft, echoing ancient stories, always on the road. 

It made me think about Odysseus, which inevitably means thinking about home and that brought to mind another Charlie I encountered over another meal a few days earlier. I was eating Peruvian chicken at Grille Twelve24, the new joint on Charles Street, with Anna Walsh, my good buddy and our food editor and copy editor (thanks to her, this column is not riddled with infelicities. As Jenn Ladd before her, Walsh is my physician, psychiatrist, and confessor) when Charlie Duff, the president of Jubilee Baltimore, which developed City Arts building, the Design School, and is working on the Centre Theater project, walked in. We’d talked on numerous occasions, so I said hi and reminded him who I was. 

“You really shouldn’t have written that piece about Jacques Kelly,” he said. He was referring to a blog post “Hey Jacques Kelly, it was called Load of Fun,” which called out the Sun nostalgia reporter for leaving Load of Fun, an art space that opened in 2005, out of his story about 120 W. North Ave., which began as Eastwick Motors, the area’s first Ford dealership a hundred years ago, and is being redeveloped by BARCO, which was funded by the Deutsch Foundation. 

That story pissed off a lot of people. When I asked Kelly about it, he didn’t seem angry at all (when other Sun reporters are mad they come and tell me—so if you’re pissed, Jacques, come on up; I’ll buy you a drink). Still, I thought Duff would have been mad about the story on Thomas Dolby and the Center Theater, which had pissed off a lot of people. Duff said he hadn’t read that piece but had been warned not to talk to me because I was against Station North. 

I told him that I wasn’t against Station North at all. I spend a lot of time there playing music and drinking and do a lot of my reporting there. It is in a fascinating moment of flux right now,  in a way that reminds me of the old HBO show “Deadwood”—it is a territory about to be annexed into a state, with a huge influx of money and power. And, when you ask questions about the benevolence of that power, it is immediately assumed that you are against it. Since the arts press, in particular, in this town tends to be sycophantic, this “you’re either with us or against us” mentality is easy to push. 

A couple days later,  I saw that the project to renovate it was recently awarded $453,968 in historic-preservation tax credits. The press release left out the same information that Kelly’s story did—that this auto dealership had already been an arts space. I also saw that the Rouse-backed project to transform 408-413 N. Howard St. into theaters had not received the credit. I thought it would be cool to compare and try to see why one project gets a grant and another doesn’t. I got on the phone with Collin Ingraham, administrator of financial incentives at the Maryland Department of Planning, which awarded nine grants statewide this year. After an interesting interview with Ingraham, I began to read the application, which I got from another source.

The grant eased one suspicion—that there had been some concerted effort to elide a period of the building’s history. Load of Fun, and the fact that Sherwin Mark had already turned the building into an art space,  was immediately there at the top of the application, which also did a good job of pointing out why it would be a good candidate for historic-preservation tax credits, since it highlights the architectural style that came with automobiles to Baltimore a hundred years ago (the introduction of autos killed cities and was probably the worst thing that ever happened to Baltimore, but, hey, it is for that reason an even more important history).

In an email exchange, I told Will Holman, who is heading up the planning of the project for BARCO and had given me a tour of the site a few weeks back, that he didn’t need to send a copy of the application, that I managed to get it. I did not, and still won’t, say where I got it. But I didn’t think it was a big deal. 

I didn’t hear back from anyone until I found a hyperventilating message on my phone from Ingraham. It was almost incomprehensible, but it was clear that BARCO had been calling him—during his Christmas vacation!—and complaining that he had given me the grant document. He insisted I call him.
On the phone, he sounded even more upset than in his message. He wanted me to explain why I said he gave me the document. I never said I got the document from him. Again he yelled that it was his Christmas vacation. He asked who I got it from. I said it was inappropriate for him, as a public official, to be asking me where I got the document and I would not tell him.
He sputtered some more and ended by saying “fuck you and your story.” 

That really was not necessary. But at least his anger was vivid and visceral, instead of the weird passive aggression that comes from some people. But it made me much more interested in looking at this process and strengthens my resolve to follow the money in the arts community. It also made me think about community and what “progress” or development might mean; it made me think about place and the car dealership and the way that autos have destroyed the soul of cities over the last century and the artists who had been in Load of Fun and who would probably be there again and the fact that we would all die. All of this crossed my mind again as the lone, itinerant Charlie Bethel, wandering bard, walked out of the bar and I thought about Odysseus and then about Socrates and the relationship he had to Athens. He never left it, except in war, and yet he was always out of place within it. That is, perhaps, the best description of the role of a reporter. To love your city while also always feeling out of place in it, looking a bit more askance at it than the boosters do. 

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