Lotfy Nathan spent about five years working on "12 O'Clock Boys," his 75-minute documentary about Baltimore's dirt-bike culture, its title taken from the vertical position to which the riders aspire when they pop wheelies in the streets near Druid Hill Park.

It's no surprise to Nathan to hear that the Baltimore dirt-bikers are the source of much Sturm und Drang again, and that one of the proposed solutions for the problems they create is a dirt bike park.

Advertisement

That sounds sensible: Get the dirt-bikers off the streets, and presumably the streets they ritualistically invade each Sunday will be safer. The crowds that form to watch them are notorious for leaving gobs of trash all over the viewing areas along Reisterstown Road. So let them watch from a grandstand in a dirt-bike park.

A city councilman has proposed that Baltimore consider opening such a venue. But I don't see this as a municipal undertaking. Beyond donating land for it, the city should not be involved in the startup.

I suggested a couple of weeks ago that some social entrepreneur seize this thing — talk to the dirt-bikers, invite them to form a nonprofit or limited liability partnership, and raise some money through an online crowdfunding platform. Let them stage weekly events in the park and put on demonstrations and national competitions a few times each year. They would probably attract dirt-bikers from other cities. Under-Armour could develop and sell dirt-bike gear.

Maybe the group would get a contract for a reality TV show about creating a dirt-bike track in post-Freddie Gray Baltimore. It could sell the rights to telecast competitions. Think of it as hip-hop motocross.

Some people believe this is crazy talk, and they immediately start listing the reasons why it won't work, blah blah blah. Some think the dirt-bikers are criminals who deserve no concession or appeasement; they deserve to go to jail and have their bikes confiscated.

That sounds good, but if a crackdown were even possible — can you see Baltimore cops setting up nets or trying to lasso the bikers as they zip by? — it would probably lead to more nasty confrontations between police and the community, and create more problems than it solves. A police roundup of 12 O'Clock Boys would not settle the issue for the long term.

So this calls for some imagination.

The idea of a park for 12 O'Clock Boys is not new. Nathan says there has been talk about it for years.

"There have been plenty of deliberations over that idea," he says. "It just needs to be tried."

The big question: Would the organizer — some big-thinker to be named later, an entrepreneur willing to help get the project started — get any buy-in from the riders?

Throughout Nathan's documentary, there is plenty of profane defiance of the police; there's a shot of a biker pulling up behind a moving police cruiser and stomping on its taillight with his left foot. Why would such an outlaw want to come inside?

"No doubt part of this is a battle with the police," Nathan says. "That's part of the whole experience. There's something inherently rebellious about it. … For a lot of the riders, this is about putting their rebellious spirit into some kind of sport. If it gets a little softer, if it gets adopted or sanctioned, or institutionalized, there might be some who won't go for that."

But the bikers are close-knit; they support and encourage each other, frequently via social media. Younger riders look up to the older ones, says Nathan, and the buy-in for a park would have to come from the top.

"The older riders, who have been asking for a park, would have to rise to the occasion," Nathan says. "They'd have to talk to the younger guys about it and rally them."

Advertisement

Nathan, a 2009 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, is away from Baltimore now, working on film development between New York and Los Angeles. The acclaim for "12 O'Clock Boys" certainly opened doors for him. He's working on a script about Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in 2010 to protest government harassment, igniting the wider protests known as the Arab Spring.

It was Nathan's documentation of rebel culture in "12 O'Clock Boys" that appealed to audiences. The film brought national attention to the dirt-bikers of Baltimore.

Of course, for all the film festival-goers who applauded Nathan's documentary for the way it connected them to Baltimore's gritty street culture, there are plenty of people here who despise the dirt-bikers and would like to see them go away — or at least into a park.

Nathan understands that. He thinks a park should be pursued, and so what if that takes the edge off the raw, outlaw nature of the Sunday rides? Appropriating stuff from the cultural fringe, monetizing it, popularizing it — that's the hip-hop American way, no?

So, a 12 O'Clock Boys theme park in Baltimore seems to make sense.

"It just needs to be tried," Nathan says. "If it doesn't work, scrap it."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement