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New Baltimore slogan nods to city's star-spangled history

The city may have finally created a slogan that can't be mocked.

For years, verbal vandals lampooned well-meaning Baltimore slogans — scoffers turned "Charm City" into "Harm City" and "The City That Reads" into "The City That Breeds," or the more macabre, "The City That Bleeds." Then the ubiquitous "Believe" became "Behave."

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But the latest slogan — "Baltimore: Birthplace of The Star-Spangled Banner" — may be so straightforward and dry as to be tamper-proof.

"It's a lot better than the others," said John Waters, the cult film director and Baltimore observer, in a phone interview.

Waters said he gauges the potential success of a motto on how quickly he can figure out a smart-alecky spin. This one stumped him.

On Monday, the City Council officially christened Baltimore with the new moniker endorsed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose staff is considering painting over the "Greatest City in America" slogan that's stamped on benches citywide. They also hope the nod to the Star-Spangled Banner will boost tourism.

The city still hasn't figured out how it plans to use the new slogan, but it's likely to figure in tourism campaigns.

Unlike some of the other mottoes that cost the city tens of thousands of dollars to develop, Councilman James B. Kraft said he got the idea for the new slogan after being approached by history buffs. Groups, including the Baltimore City Historical Society and the Baltimore National Heritage Area, want to see the city capitalize on its ties to such an important historical touchstone for Americans.

"Somewhere in the world at any given minute 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is being sung. Yet many people don't know it was written here," Kraft said. "It should be something we promote."

The city pulled out all the stops last year to celebrate the bicentennial of the nation's victory over the British at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, a spectacular battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to the song that would later become the national anthem.

Councilman Bill Henry said the new slogan has staying power.

"No matter who the mayor is, no matter what industries are predominant at the time, no matter how the sports teams are doing, we will always be the birthplace of 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" Henry said. "It's hard to say there is a larger contribution that Baltimore has made to America as a whole. It's completely appropriate that will be our slogan."

But just the thought of another city slogan made local historian Gilbert Sandler groan.

"Here we go again," he said. "We've had so many. This has been going on since 'The Ark and the Dove,'" a reference to the two ships that brought English colonists to Maryland in 1634.

Newspaper accounts don't cite slogans going back quite that far, but The Baltimore Sun's archives show John Quincy Adams nicknamed Baltimore "the Monumental City" during a toast in 1827, a nod to the then newly erected Washington Monument.

In 1909, readers flooded the paper with suggestions for a competition to find a slogan, including "Here's to progressive Baltimore, Southern trade's open door" and "Bring Bettie and the babies to Baltimore for bargains."

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Sandler said adopting a new slogan puts the city at risk of another punch line. He said he's got a better idea: "The City That Needs No Slogan" or "The City that Satirizes Slogans."

The "Charm City" moniker was born in 1974 under then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who also rolled out "Baltimore Is Best." Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke lays claim to "The City That Reads," unveiled in 1989 to promote literacy.

When mayor, Gov. Martin O'Malley regularly turned to slogan-making as a way to inspire, coining at least three mottoes: "The Greatest City in America" in 2000, the "Believe" rallying cry that began in 2002 as an advertising blitz against drugs and crime, and "Baltimore — Get In On It," a marketing campaign that cost $500,000 to develop in 2006. (Even Schaefer panned the last one, saying he had "seen some dumb ones in the past, but this is the dumbest.")

Rawlings-Blake even rolled out one of her own, "Baltimore: A Great Place to Grow," phraseology the mayor doesn't use often, but a concept that serves as a unifying theme for her administration.

Kevin Harris, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman, said the mayor plans to sign the legislation to formally adopt the new slogan, but she's not going to abandon her oft-cited goal to increase the city by 10,000 families. The two slogans serve the same purpose: to bring more people, he said.

The administration will work with businesses, nonprofits and community leaders to figure out the best way to use the new slogan, Harris said. That includes whether to paint over "The Greatest City in America" on benches or add a reference to the national anthem's origins at bus stops and other spots.

"Baltimore should be proud of our rich legacy and history as a premier city in the United States," Harris said in a statement. "Everyone understands the importance of tourism to Baltimore's economy, and whether it's marketing or developing more initiatives to continue driving down crime, cleaning city streets and recruiting more national events that pump millions into the local economy, the mayor will continue to do everything necessary to keep the city growing."

Harris said he didn't have an estimate for the cost to repaint the benches, but called it "relatively modest."

Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, said he's on board with the new slogan, even though he still likes Charm City.

"I view it as more of an identifier than a slogan," Fowler said. "It represents a matter of pride for the city, and certainly no one can object to it. And it's an identifier that will strick around for a long time, and no other city can claim that special point in American history."

Fowler said the partnership will be careful about whether or how to incorporate the slogan into its marketing. He said the group has opted for imagery over slogans in its recent marketing campaigns to avoid the potential for ridicule. Also, he said, city and state slogans are "a dime a dozen."

"Slogans can be tricky things," Fowler said.

Waters, meanwhile, offered some other ideas.

"My choice would have been, 'Madalyn Murray lived here,'" referring to the well-known atheist whose 1960s lawsuit ended official prayers in American schools, "or 'Baltimore, the last bohemia,' to get a younger audience," he said, "but I'm fine with it."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell and reporters Luke Broadwater and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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