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An ethnic festival goes suburban


The 16th Jewish-American Festival will feature the usual impressive array of entertainers and gustatory delights. The event will also occupy its standard slot on the calendar, Labor Day weekend.

But this year's festival will differ from its predecessors because of its location -- the parking lot of the Owings Mills Town Center mall. In fact, this marks the first time one of Baltimore's Showcase of Nations ethnic fests has been moved out of the city.

At first blush, the festival organizers' decision to make the move seems simple enough. They wanted more space than any of the standard city locations could provide, and heaven knows the Owings Mills mall parking lot offers space enough for a few ethnic festivals to run concurrently.

One of the organizers has also said the location should appeal to suburbanites who avoided the event when it was held downtown.

This notion is troubling in that it suggests suburbanites are better off in the safe suburbs, far from the big bad city. Shifting the festival to an area with a largely Jewish population also smacks of exclusionism, the antithesis of the Showcase of Nations theme of sharing one culture with members of other cultures.

Of course, the organizers are free to do what they want with the festival. We only hope this move doesn't become a trend among major city-based events. Fears of urban America are not entirely unfounded, but they are left unaddressed and unresolved when people turn their backs on the cities that are the hearts of our metropolitan areas.

If it seems naive to expect so much from a festival, just recall the impact of the Baltimore City Fair after it was started 22 years ago. The fair did a lot to attract people from all over the area and show them that if they could play together, then maybe they could work together to fix what ailed the city.

Out of that spirit came the belief that downtown Baltimore could be reborn. The following two decades saw a progression of dazzling achievements -- the start of the ethnic festivals in 1976, the Maryland Science Center, Harborplace, the National Aquarium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- that made Baltimore proud of itself and made the nation take admiring notice of Baltimore.

Yes, the city is slumping these days, but that would seem all the more reason to stand by it. At least the bad economy hasn't stopped the city from supplying support services for the ethnic fests and asking organizers to pay only 10 percent of the labor costs involved.

No doubt this year's Jewish-American festival will be as enjoyable as ever. We just wish it wasn't going suburban after so many good years in the city.

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