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18 moments that defined the past decade of Baltimore’s culture

Now that was a decade.

From the great (upscale growth in Harbor East and downtown) to the disastrous (former Mayor Catherine Pugh pleading guilty, more than 1,500 murders in the last five years), the 2010s proved a decade of head-spinning extremes for Baltimore.

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Yes, the alarmingly high murder rate and the distressingly consistent corruption plaguing City Hall have cast a pall over B-more that all of us have a hard time shaking off. But bright spots stubbornly continue to pierce the gloom, reminding us all that Charm City can be more than just a marketing term. As a city, we’ve continued the development of a thriving arts scene (witness the opening of the SNF Parkway on North Avenue and the vibrant energy of the surrounding Station North Arts District). We’ve seen a group of new, young leaders elected to the City Council, many total newcomers to the political scene. We had a sold-out Billy Joel show mark the first big-time rock concert booked into Oriole Park at Camden Yards (and stadium officials are promising more). And with a young quarterback breaking records nearly every game, we’ve watched the resurgent Ravens become the most exciting team in the NFL.

What follows is a look at some of the ups and downs that helped define the 2010s in Baltimore. The 2020s have their work cut out for them.

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Freddie Gray mural in Sandtown.
Freddie Gray mural in Sandtown. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Freddie Gray’s death cleaves a city in two

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For many outsiders, the unrest following Freddie Gray’s death from spinal injuries suffered while in police custody confirmed their most prejudiced assumptions. For others, Gray’s death and the ensuing protests forever connected this city with the others whose black communities experienced unrest. While it couldn’t change everything, the unrest compelled support from Rihanna and Prince, elevated DeRay Mckesson to national prominence and opened local activists to more platforms of international solidarity. His death and the ensuing unrest continue to cast a dark cloud over the city five years later.

An FBI agent carries boxes of Healthy Holly books out of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's home during a raid.
An FBI agent carries boxes of Healthy Holly books out of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh's home during a raid. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

A children’s book takes down a mayor

At the beginning of the decade, few Baltimore voters had ever heard of Healthy Holly, her brother, Herbie, and their efforts to eat healthy and exercise. That would change in March 2019. The Baltimore Sun reported that the city’s mayor Catherine E. Pugh had sold half a million dollars worth of her own “Healthy Holly” books, replete with typos and misspellings, to the University of Maryland Medical System, while serving on the UMMS board. Pugh, who resigned from office, eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion and conspiracy. Prosecutors allege Pugh defrauded local companies with nearly $800,000 in sales of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books, many of which were never actually printed.

Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Ta-Nehisi Coates leads a national debate about race

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocative 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” established the Baltimore-born author and race relations warrior as that rarest of beings: a public intellectual. His 2015 book “Between the World and Me,” a letter of advice aimed at keeping his teenage son safe in an often-hostile world, won prestigious prizes including the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Award (commonly known as a “genius grant”) has made a mark on genres as different as comic books (he penned a Black Panther and Captain America series) and a magic realist novel, “The Water Dancer.” Many people disagree with Coates. But there’s no question he’s had an impact on our national dialogue.

Marin Alsop conducts the orchestra and choir during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church Sat., Sept. 14, 2019.
Marin Alsop conducts the orchestra and choir during a free concert by the Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony, at New Shiloh Baptist Church Sat., Sept. 14, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra teeters on the brink

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s dire financial straits focused national attention on why it’s so difficult to keep cherished but costly cultural institutions afloat. While the organization previously toured Europe and has internationally known conductor Marin Alsop as its music director, for 12 weeks this summer the musicians were locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. An audit concluded that the BSO might lack the financial resources to remain in business for another year. Finally, management and the musicians struck a temporary deal. Concerts resumed in the fall of 2019 while a state task force scrambled to devise recommendations for restoring the orchestra to financial health. Did the delaying tactic work? Time will tell; the task force is facing a February deadline to present its plan.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards."
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." (Nathaniel E. Bell)

‘House of Cards’ spins a dark web

As Netflix’s first original series, spanning six seasons from 2013-2018, the filmed-in-Baltimore, set-in-D.C. “House of Cards” made a lot of waves. It helped change the way TV series are watched, ushering in the era of binge-watching (made possible by Netflix’s decision to release all of a season’s episodes simultaneously). Its depiction of a power-hungry U.S. Congressman and his enablers, willing to do anything — anything! — in pursuit of power made it prime water-cooler fodder, and earned it ample Emmy and other awards recognition. And when star Kevin Spacey left the show amid charges of sexual impropriety, it became a flashpoint in the Me-Too movement. Criminal and civil charges against Spacey were later dropped, but not before the actor’s career came to a screeching halt, from which it has yet to recover; save for an odd posting to YouTube. Since he appeared in the video as Frank Underwood, his “House of Cards” character, little has been heard from him since the show ended. Surprisingly, the show was able to regroup and offer a sixth and final season, with Underwood dead and his wife, Claire (a not-to-be-messed-with Robin Wright), assuming the presidency. With all the machinations plaguing Washington these days, fans have been left to wonder: Just how imaginary was this show?

Officials escort "Serial" podcast subject Adnan Syed from the courthouse on Feb. 3, 2016, following the completion of the first day of hearings for a retrial in Baltimore, Md.
Officials escort "Serial" podcast subject Adnan Syed from the courthouse on Feb. 3, 2016, following the completion of the first day of hearings for a retrial in Baltimore, Md. (Karl Merton Ferron / TNS)

The ‘Serial’ podcast enthralls a nation

When it debuted in 2014, “Serial” ushered in a podcast Renaissance and kept a nation of listeners spellbound. Created by former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig with Julie Snyder, “Serial” explored the real-life case of Adnan Syed in 12 weekly installments. Syed was convicted in 2000 of the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in Leakin Park. Syed has steadfastly maintained his innocence, and the podcast inspired a Baltimore court to reopen his case in 2015. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court capped four years of legal maneuvering by refusing to grant Syed a new trial.

An image from "12 O'Clock Boys," director Lotfy Nathan's insightful documentary on Baltimore's renegade dirt-bike gangs.  
An image from "12 O'Clock Boys," director Lotfy Nathan's insightful documentary on Baltimore's renegade dirt-bike gangs.   (Courtesy of "12 O'Clock Boys," Handout photo)

Dirt bike culture polarizes city

The prevalence of dirt bike riders in Baltimore over the last decade has inspired handwringing and attempted control by local government. With the success of the “12 O’Clock Boys” documentary, the establishment of B-360, a local program that aims to educate and attract more students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics using dirt bike culture and an upcoming narrative adaptation produced by Baltimore-bred artistic giant Jada Pinkett Smith, the dirt bike riders’ infamy will be enshrined.

Tate Kobang performs at Baltimore Soundstage.
Tate Kobang performs at Baltimore Soundstage. (Reginald Thomas II)

‘Bank Rolls’ celebrates Baltimore

Tate Kobang spitting “Bitch I’m from Baltimore, you say I was, I’ve never seen you” in the first lines of 2015’s “Bank Rolls” felt like an act of courage. His update of Tim Trees’ local 2000 hit, produced by Baltimore club legend Rod Lee, proudly claims this much-insulted city with pride. Its popular remix name-checks late Club Queen K Swift and kiddie discos, while the video celebrates the corners and crazy legs dancing that only locals knew before the social media age. By releasing the original song’s video on the date Freddie Gray died, Tate Kobang unwittingly gave Baltimoreans a new way to celebrate their past and future. Whatever he does next, the rapper left Baltimore an anthem for the ages.

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Christian Siriano attends the Barbour By ALEXACHUNG Fall 2019 Collection Celebration at Nordstrom on October 10, 2019 in New York City.
Christian Siriano attends the Barbour By ALEXACHUNG Fall 2019 Collection Celebration at Nordstrom on October 10, 2019 in New York City. (Craig Barritt / Getty Images for Barbour)

Christian Siriano eclipses ‘Project Runway’

He’s dressed everyone from then first lady Michelle Obama to red carpet royalty. And at 34, Christian Siriano is just getting started. The Annapolis native and Baltimore School for the Arts alum — is arguably the best thing to come out of the reality show series “Project Runway.” The wunderkind continues to deliver exciting show after exciting show during New York Fashion Week, which has been a platform for him to showcase body positivity and diversity. A slew of red carpet successes during awards season and collaborations with brands such as Amazon, Payless, Lane Bryant and HSN have shown that he’s equally fierce when it comes to business as well as creativity. His career has already come full circle. The former winner of “Project Runway” now serves in the iconic mentor role for the show.

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Parker Curry, 2, stands in awe of the new National Portrait Gallery painting of Michelle Obama.
Parker Curry, 2, stands in awe of the new National Portrait Gallery painting of Michelle Obama. (Ben Hines photo)

Amy Sherald captures the essence of Michelle Obama

A snapshot of a 2-year-old girl staring awestruck at a larger-than-lifesize painting of former first lady Michelle Obama captured a nation’s heart — and catapulted Baltimore artist Amy Sherald to cultural stardom. Sherald was considered a relative unknown by the New York-centric art establishment when she was commissioned to paint the official portrait. Her depiction of Michelle Obama with gray skin — a Sherald trademark — initially received mixed critical reaction. Then a photograph of young Parker Curry gazing transfixed at the 2018 painting went viral. The tot’s reaction persuaded a nation that Sherald’s portraits of ordinary African Americans are as important as they are arresting.

R-House in Remington.
R-House in Remington. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Food halls become the new town squares

Food halls became a certifiable “thing” in the Baltimore area this decade, appearing in the city’s revamped public markets, Remington’s R. House and the Clarksville Commons. A more sophisticated cousin to the standard food court, millennial-friendly food halls often host a buffet of globally inspired stalls for guests to choose from, with a common seating area shared by all. And we haven’t seen the last of this trend: The Whitehall Market is set to open next year along the Jones Falls, with another one in the works in East Baltimore’s Food Hub.

Baltimore, Md -- The Legg Mason Tower stands on the right in Harbor East as construction continues on the condominiums atop the the Four Seasons Hotel.
Baltimore, Md -- The Legg Mason Tower stands on the right in Harbor East as construction continues on the condominiums atop the the Four Seasons Hotel. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Harbor East becomes synonymous with high-end luxury

From the November 2011 debut of the $200 million Four Seasons Baltimore to the August 2019 opening of the $107 million Liberty Harbor East , this waterfront parcel spent the decade solidifying its reputation as the nexus of modern, high-end luxury in Charm City. With tony retail shops (Arhaus, Brooks Brothers) and trendy eateries (Fleming’s, Ouzo Bay, Cinghiale), not to mention a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods set to open in early 2020 (doubling the size of the extant Whole Foods, just a block away), a 184-slip marina and that scarcest of city commodities, a movie theater, Harbor East’s reputation as a playground for the well-off appears both hard-earned and secure.

Mr. Trash Wheel.
Mr. Trash Wheel. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Mr. Trash Wheel becomes a Baltimore hero

In a city where litter is a perennial headache, a trash guzzler in Harbor East has become an out and out hero. Since its installation in 2014, the solar- and water-powered trash interceptor from Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative has removed more than 1,400 tons of garbage from the Jones Falls as it empties into the Inner Harbor. Today, he has his own Twitter account, several T-shirts and multiple beers named after him. And of course, there are his counterparts, Professor Trash Wheel and Captain Trash Wheel. A fourth will arrive in 2020 to the mouth of the Gwynns Falls.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank listens during the company's stockholder meeting in 2015. Under Armour had scheduled a special stockholder meeting to vote on the proposal to change by laws and create a new class of non voting stock that would preserve CEO Kevin Plank's control of the sports apparel maker.
Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank listens during the company's stockholder meeting in 2015. Under Armour had scheduled a special stockholder meeting to vote on the proposal to change by laws and create a new class of non voting stock that would preserve CEO Kevin Plank's control of the sports apparel maker. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Under Armour makes its mark on the industry

Arguably one of Maryland’s most recognizable brands, Under Armour’s work with such athletes as Ray Lewis, Steph Curry, Misty Copeland and Cam Newton has made it an international sensation. But in recent years the brand has experienced missteps and controversy as well as triumphs. Founder and CEO Kevin Plank, a University of Maryland College Park alum, drew ire from his athletes and the public in connection with him expressing support for President Donald Trump. In Nov. 2019, the company confirmed it was the subject of federal investigations in connection with its accounting practices. The company went through three CFOs between 2016 to 2017. And Plank announced in October that he would step down as the company’s CEO in January with COO Patrik Frisk replacing him. Plank plans to stay on at the company as executive chairman and brand chief. Plank and his various businesses also launched the high-end hotel Sagamore Pendry, found success with Sagamore Racing and received hundreds of millions of dollars from the city to develop Port Covington.

At  Light City Baltimore, children play on "The Pool" by Jen Lewin, a series of color-changing circles that react to movement of festival-goers.
At  Light City Baltimore, children play on "The Pool" by Jen Lewin, a series of color-changing circles that react to movement of festival-goers. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Light City brightens the night sky

In a decade that has seen Baltimore grab unwanted headlines following the death of Freddie Gray, Light City has been a literal bright spot — a week-long showcase for brightly lit, large-scale art pieces, from an illuminated (and moving) peacock to glowing blocks floating in the harbor, thought up and assembled by artists from all over the world. From the first, in April 2016, to the fourth this past November, the festival has attracted hundreds of thousands to the Inner Harbor for music, food, plenty of oohing and ahhing and, perhaps most importantly, high-spirited camaraderie. Light City, which has also included satellite art installations in neighborhoods throughout the city, has helped Baltimoreans feel good about themselves and where they live, at a time when optimism sometimes seems in short supply.

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Scooters in Baltimore.
Scooters in Baltimore. (Amy Davis)

Scooters and bike shares take up residency

Baltimore first entered into the world of bike shares in 2016, but abandoned the program within two years (and after spending $3.2 million), because too many bikes were disappearing. Still, the city’s commitment to car-less transportation remained; just drive down Maryland Avenue/Cathedral Street and see how many traffic lanes and parking spaces have been given over to bike lanes. In August 2019, four companies received permission to bring their dockless scooters and bikes to the city. Sure, pedestrians and auto drivers still need to get used to sharing their space, but it looks like these smaller (and more eco-friendly) transports are here to stay.

The Alexander Brown restaurant.
The Alexander Brown restaurant. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun / Baltimore Sun)

Old buildings find new uses

The past decade has seen a plethora of adaptive reuse projects, with architects and developers finding creative new ways to make the city’s centuries-old edifices relevant for 21st-century needs. Look no further than gilded age specimens like downtown’s former Alex. Brown investment bank, which survived Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904 and this decade became a restaurant, or the Food Hub campus in Broadway East, located on the grounds of a 19th-century water pumping station.

Main Street in Ellicott City in 2018.
Main Street in Ellicott City in 2018. (Libby Solomon / AP)

Historic Ellicott City bounces back

It’s the town that won’t stay down. Twice, in 2016 and 2018, heavy rains sent flash floods surging through Ellicott City, turning Main Street into a raging torrent that took three lives and wreaked havoc on dozens of shops and restaurants, leaving muck and misery behind. Some businesses and workers have yet to recover and Howard County has condemned multiple buildings as part of a proposed flood mitigation plan. Yet both times the historic town, a local gem, rallied, spurred on by resolute business owners and untold volunteers whose communal efforts, driven by a vintage barn-rising mentality, still resonate with people near and far.

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