'This isn’t tuna—I don’t want it': Alan Hirsch, a City Paper co-founder, looks back
By By Rafael Alvarez
Nov 01, 2017 at 10:41 AM
If the nice Jewish boy from Upper Park Heights had gotten the teaching job at the historic Catholic high school for girls, the paper you are now reading might never have existed.
"My interview went great," Hirsch remembers of his chance to teach English at the Institute of Notre Dame in East Baltimore. "But they found a nun to take the class."
This was back in 1977 when Hirsch was a newly graduated Johns Hopkins University English major. The gig was his second rejection, the other for an assistant PR job with The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
There he was, a smart and ambitious young man failing at both ends of the Judeo-Christian job search in his own backyard.
"Fuck it," Hirsch remembers saying to himself. "I'll go to work for Russ."
Russ is Russell Smith, a JHU Class of '77 Humanities major and Hirsch's best friend in college. Hirsch was editor in chief of the Hopkins News-Letter in 1974. Smith succeeded him.
"My education at Hopkins was the News-Letter," said Smith. "It consumed almost all my time. I was a crummy student."
While Hirsch applied for traditional jobs after graduation, Smith launched a tabloid called City Squeeze. He was aided by a small JHU crew that included photographer Jennifer Bishop, artist Craig Hankin, designer Joachim Blunck, and barroom trivia champ Ken Sokolow (the stamp collecting, LOTTO-enthusiast Sokolow is remembered for insisting that the fledging paper be called "Mungo Jerry" in honor of the 1970s, one-hit-wonder band from Britain).
When Hirsch went full-time with the Squeeze in the fall of 1977 everyone knew (or soon found out) that he and Smith controlled the game ball—they incorporated the enterprise in early 1978, renaming it City Paper.
"To the extent that the Squeeze became successful at all, I give 100 percent of the credit to Russ," said Hirsch. "He had the push and the drive. The dream was his and that dream seduced me."
"When we incorporated, Alan said, 'The paper was your idea, so you're the editor and I'll run the business.' Very practical," Smith says.
And thus Hirsch — a book-obsessed kid who edited his middle school paper (Pimlico Pacer), high school rag (Poly Press), and the JHU student weekly — became a businessman.
"What strikes me is how different Alan was from the rest of us volatile, opinionated loudmouths and how essential that was to [CP's success]," said Hankin, now director of JHU's Center for Visual Arts.
"He was never a hippie, didn't much care about music or pop culture. He was a real straight arrow—focused, centered, and calm. Unlike most of us, he understood business."
When Hirsch sold the first City Paper ad for $200—to the JHU School of Continuing Studies—the staff reacted as though he'd landed a million-dollar campaign. The partners began paying themselves $75 a week for jobs that demanded all of their waking moments and Hirsch moved from his parents' house to a $140-a-month apartment in Mount Vernon.
A decade later, he and Smith sold CP to Times-Shamrock Communications of Scranton, Pa., for seven figures somewhere less than $4 million. In 2014, the Tribune Company, owners of the Baltimore Sun, bought the paper from Times-Shamrock.
"We knew we were successful when people started trying to buy us," said Hirsch. "The Jewish Times and the Towson Times both approached us and it was Russ who saw the money wasn't enough. I likely would have sold for a lot less."
That combination—an editor savvy about money and a publisher rooted in the language—was a winner and CP succeeded where other alternative papers in Baltimore failed.
"No one appreciated Russ's business instincts but I saw it," Hirsch says.
In July, the Baltimore Sun Media Group announced that the City Paper would be shut down before the end of the year, most likely in November. Where some saw the decision as a strategic contract killing— buy your competition and then eliminate it — Hirsch the businessman said it makes sense.
"The City Paper was dying of natural causes and the Sun took it off life support, just like the Village Voice will no longer exist on paper," said Hirsch, who kept a copy of the first edition and will likely grab the last to bookend it. "I was sad but I'm 30 years removed from my days there. I'm amazed that it evolved into an important institution."
And a businessman he remains, a 61-year-old publisher-turned-restaurateur who co-founded Donna's in 1992 and, last year, Cosima along the Jones Falls below Hampden. Together with two years owning and operating a couple of TCBY yogurt stands, Hirsch has been trading food for folding money in Baltimore for nearly 30 years.
"It would have been great if all 10 years at City Paper would have been like the first year—exciting and new," said Hirsch tableside at Donna's in Cross Keys, the surviving location of a chain that once numbered seven. "By the time we sold, I was done."
Hirsch established Donna's — as he did Cosima — with chef Donna Crivello. The two were introduced by former Baltimore Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large, who worked with Crivello when Donna was an art director at the paper. Crivello had just taken a Sun buy-out and Hirsch was ready to move beyond yogurt. Hirsch claims that Donna's was the first local restaurant to put olive oil (instead of butter) on the table with artisanal bread.
To stuck-in-their-provincial-ways Baltimoreans, it was weird. "We offered Sicilian tuna salad—which was so much healthier," Hirsch says. "People were saying, 'This isn't tuna—I don't want it.'" The difference between working side-by-side with the cantankerous Smith (publisher of the online site splicetoday.com) and the warm-and-gracious Crivello?