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People respond to Southwest The Magazine's article about Baltimore being possibly the most underrated city. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore has been riddled with controversy since the start of the new year, but Southwest Airlines is singing its praises in an in-flight magazine that will reach more than 5 million readers next month.

“Southwest: The Magazine” will include a 24-page spread (13 editorial pages, the rest ads) on Charm City in its next issue, to be released on Feb. 1, taking an in-depth look at the city and its people alongside ads from local restaurants, hotels and organizations. Jay Heinrichs, a bestselling author and the magazine’s editorial director, touts Baltimore as possibly “the most underrated city in America” and “the city you’re missing.”

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“We were looking for cities that punched below their weight in terms of public opinion,” Heinrichs told The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, noting that the magazine wanted to avoid run-of-the-mill recommendations. Baltimore, a city plagued by a reputation for violence and corruption, was at the top of the list.

In the past month alone, Baltimore set a record number of homicides per capita, the city’s police commissioner was replaced ahead of a trial for two officers accused of corruption, a local hospital drew criticism for patient dumping and some city schools went without adequate heat for days. Moreover, the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent unrest lingers in public memory.

Still, the city has received other positive press. Zagat listed Baltimore as one of 2017’s most exciting food cities, and The New York Times published travel stories highlighting the city, including a spot on the newspaper’s “52 Places to Visit in 2018.”

Heinrichs had visited Baltimore several times before but thought it was time to give it another shot.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is one of Southwest’s largest hubs.

“What we thought would be great was to get together with people in the city to sort of talk about what people in Baltimore think of Baltimore,” he said. “It’d be great to see the city I’m missing, the city I thought I knew. … I just didn’t know which city I would find.”

Heinrichs praised Baltimore as a bar town with a strong entrepreneurial spirit — he dined with co-founders of the local Treason Toting Company, which received investments from Under Armour’s Kevin Plank, and chilled out at the “hippest workspaces.” He described it as one of the cleanest cities he’s ever seen, noting the upgrades since his previous visits.

Heinrichs also mentioned the burgeoning arts scene, including Station North, a place he says people will be nostalgic for 20 years from now. He walked with local 20-something Marissa Moss during her daily commute to work and spotlighted the #MyBmore hashtag, which invites social media users to tell their stories and document city highlights, including the people and places they love.

“This is one of the friendliest towns in America. Rich, poor, black, Hispanic, white … everyone treated me as an old friend, including people who had no idea I was writing for this magazine,” Heinrichs wrote.

The New York Times spends 36 hours in Baltimore. Here's what they highlighted.

The feature also includes gems on the foodie scene in “Restaurants You Won’t Find Anywhere Else,” including Hampden ice cream shop The Charmery, Remington food hall R. House, Woodberry Kitchen, Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, and The Bluebird Cocktail Room. Among the pages are ads for Light City, the free international light festival; the Atlas Restaurant Group, which owns several Harbor East restaurants; and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, the theater where a preview party for the feature took place Tuesday night.

But Heinrichs, who spent four days in the city starting in late November (and who will be returning with his wife for their anniversary next April instead of their original plans for a trip to Rome), insisted that “this was not a pay-to-play thing.” He said he found interesting people through his own curiosity and worked with tourism bureau Visit Baltimore and the Downtown Partnership to connect with real people, businesses and organizations.

Al Hutchinson, the president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, said he hoped the feature would capture the authenticity of the city and the attention of travelers.

“One of the things we’re excited about is Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. We have a very great culinary scene. We have history and attractions in Baltimore. We’re always looking for ways to tell the story,” he said.

Michael Evitts, the Downtown Partnership’s vice president of marketing and communication, said the article will serve as a tool for locals and visitors to veer away from the beaten path of the Inner Harbor, crabs and Camden Yards.

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Hot on the heels of last week's "36 Hours in Baltimore" feature, the New York Times is once again paying a visit to its feisty neighbor to the south, outlining

“If you’re only following the national news of Baltimore, you’d be missing a lot of the things happening in the city. It’s useful for all of us as a city both economically and culturally,” he said.

It’s exciting for residents, too, he said.

“There’s a level of pride when Baltimoreans see themselves through the eyes of a publication like this, or you’re flying business, and you’re like ‘Hey, that’s my city!’ As a city, it’s important for us to have that moment collectively,” said Evitts, adding that Heinrichs spent time getting to know the vibe and tone of the city.

Jason Zhang, associate professor and department head of marketing at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business, said considering the recent news, a feature like “Southwest: The Magazine’s” is a “right way of trying to recreate a better image of the city.”

Zhang said it’d be a stretch to say that one spread could inspire an immediate change to the entire perception of Baltimore, but “it’s a meaningful attempt.”

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Zhang said the spread will likely appeal to travelers who are focused on fun and will help control negative perceptions of Baltimore, though its economic impact could be difficult to quantify.

Jed Dietz, the founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, said the interest shown in the arts scene is valuable, and that he thinks Southwest is on to something.

“They found something in the city that is maybe not so well known but is a great story to tell,” he said.

Khari Parker, co-owner of Connie’s Chicken and Waffles (which also advertised), sees the article as a sign that “more folks [will be] coming to Baltimore … to see why we’re unique and why it’s the place to be.” He said this could help Baltimore become a contender with other tourist cities like Washington, Miami or New York.

“It’s going to appeal to the person who’s the foodie or the traveler,” said Parker, who felt it was an honor to be featured.

For local food personality Tim “Chyno” Chin, known for his Instagram account “@thebaltimorefoodie” and his bright blue beard, the magazine feature is a representation of the Baltimore he already sees everyday — a city full of culture, diversity, small businesses and “movers and shakers.”

“It’s the Baltimore that’s not constantly represented. It’s so perfect,” said Chin, who contributed photos to the magazine. “Being featured in a magazine that’s behind every seat of Southwest, I’m overjoyed by it.”

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