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What's so funny about Dundalk?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I'm born and raised in Dundalk

It's here I got my start.

I'll always live here in my heart.

I'm born and raised in Dundalk

I'll always live in Dundalk,

If only in my heart.

Refrain to "I'll Always

Live in Dundalk"

At 10 on a recent workday morning, the sun is high in the sky and Dundalk Avenue is green and leafy, with not a rusted El Camino in sight. The women are all handsome and the men above average and the children are in school soaking up knowledge, the way God and the federal government intended.

Inside Tom Toporovich's black Lincoln Town Car, Sinatra is playing on the radio. A minute ago, Mr. Toporovich was smiling, only now he doesn't look so good, like a man who should be reaching for the Maalox.

As a 26-year resident and the unofficial mayor of Dundalk, Mr. Toporovich has just been asked why it is that people take such glee in bashing his community, with every two-bit nightclub comic, sportscaster and DJ getting his shots in over the years.

"People who bash Dundalk are ignorant people," Mr. Toporovich says finally. "They don't take the time to learn what they're talking about. I've lived in seven states and spent 21 years in New York City. But there isn't another place in the U.S.A. I'd want to live."

The latest to treat Dundalk like a pinata is disc jockey Brian Wilson of WOCT-FM (104.3), who has been whacking the community with gusto for four months now on his morning drive-time show on "The Colt."

Other people jump out of bed in the morning and knock off 50 push-ups or 100 jumping jacks as part of their wake-up ritual. Brian Wilson throws off the covers, drops to his knees and thanks The Man Upstairs that there's a Dundalk to rip on the air.

Then he rushes to the phone to make sure the place is still there, that some freak geological accident didn't cause it to go spinning off into the Patapsco River.

"There's a shortage of pharmacists in Dundalk," Mr. Wilson told his listening audience recently. "Apparently they can't figure out how to get those little bottles in the typewriter."

Another time Mr. Wilson noted: "It's 7:48. Time for all you people in Dundalk to move your El Caminos to the other side of the street."

Depending on your point of view, this stuff is either a real hoot or one cheap shot after another in a continuing series of tedious Dundalk jokes that have worn increasingly thin to the residents of this working-class community.

Brian Wilson says the jokes are just part of his act, nothing to be taken seriously, and he professes astonishment at the outrage they provoke.

But for people like Tom Toporovich -- and dozens of other civic and business-minded Dundalkians -- the jokes are no laughing matter. In fact, at 6 on a Friday evening two weeks ago, at a time when thoughts of Happy Hour and Buffalo wings and icy drafts might occupy some people, 120 citizens showed up at a meeting at Dundalk Community College to discuss the singular theme: What should we do about this Brian Wilson guy?

"I frankly think it's important to respond to this thing,' says Deborah Cornely, the managing editor of the Dundalk Eagle, which has blasted Mr. Wilson on its editorial page. "My feeling is if this man were telling ethnic jokes this man would be off the air in minutes. But because it's the Dundalk community, it's OK."

They don't whine

One thing you learn about Dundalk -- the people there don't sit around and whine when things aren't going their way. Soon after Brian Wilson began ripping the place, Mr. Toporovich and community activists Jeanie Jung and Milton Schwartzman met with station officials of "The Colt," hoping to persuade them to rein in Mr. Wilson.

When that didn't work, Debbie and Gene Golden, owners of Golden Signs, began spearheading an effort to get advertisers to drop Mr. Wilson's show. (Thus far, they say, seven advertisers have bailed out.)

The Goldens have also formed the Dundalk Image Group, a grass-roots committee to counter the negative perceptions so many people have about their community.

The fact is, though, that outsiders have been taking shots at Dundalk since at least the Grover Cleveland administration.

Long-time resident Milton Schwartzman, 80, says he knows a 103-year-old lifetime Dundalk resident, and SHE remembers hearing Dundalk put down when she was a little girl.

Lorenzo Romiti, 43, whose family has run Squire's, a popular Dundalk restaurant, for over 40 years, has heard the abuse all his life, too.

"I live in Ellicott City now because of my wife's job," says Mr. Romiti, "and the people there say: 'Wow, you're from DUNDALK?!' They think it's like the Wild West! It still has the old image of drunken longshoremen belting back shots and beers. Obviously it's not like that anymore.

"Besides," he continues, "if we were as bad as Brian Wilson says we are, we would have sent someone down to the station to kick his ass."

For the record, it should be noted that Mr. Romiti is laughing as he says that, and that none of the men sitting at this table in Squire's appears to be reaching for a baseball bat.

Why Dundalk?

Greater Dundalk is generally defined as an area of 13.3 square miles that juts from the southeastern tip of Baltimore County in the shape of a lion.

According to the 1990 census, 65,800 people live in here. Most are white (61,099) and doing well enough: Median income is $31,120. Dundalk has its own flag, a snappy yellow and green number with the Maryland seal in the lower left corner and a gothic "D" dominating the right side. It has its own song, "I'll Always Live in Dundalk,' which will not make anyone forget the marches of John Philip Sousa and yet is said to be stirring in its own right, especially after a few cocktails.

The community was founded in 1895 by Henry McShane, who built a cast-iron pipe factory along the railroad line to the Sparrows Point steel mill. He named the rail junction Dundalk, after his hometown in Ireland.

Many say it's the harsh-sounding name, and working-class roots, that have bedeviled its residents ever since.

"That's what this is all about," says Richard Bell, general manager of Squire's. "It's a working-class part of town, so it's an easy target."

Spend any time at all in Dundalk, however, and you're struck by the All-American look and feel of the community: well-tended two- and three-story single-family homes and rowhouses, as well as semi-detached homes, churches, ballfields, every civic and charitable organization known to man.

This year's Heritage Fair drew close to 60,000 people. And the Fourth of July parade routinely draws crowds of nearly 100,000.

Yet it's not Oz, and no one pretends it is. Job layoffs at Bethlehem Steel have hurt -- the company employed 30,000 during its heyday in the late '50s and now has a work force of only 5,400. Western Electric closed, and there were layoffs at the GM plant on Broening Highway.

In addition, it has its share of crime and drug problems, Dundalk does, and a jumbo-sized controversy developing over federally subsidized low-income housing. And when the humidity climbs and the wind is blowing just right, the odor from the waste treatment plant would make you KILL for a Mylex suit and oxygen mask.

Nevertheless, no other community in the area seems to inspire the fierce loyalty that Dundalkians have for their share of God's green Earth.

"I'd rather be here than anywhere else," says Mr. Romiti, a sentiment expressed over and over during a recent lunch hour spent at Squire's.

"The thing about Dundalk that may be unique," says Van Holland, 63, a former reporter for the Dundalk Eagle, "is its patriotism, its love of community, and the willingness [of the people] to help others."

Given this sort of proud self-image, it's no wonder Dundalkians react to people ripping their community like a puppy that's just been whacked on the head for no reason.

The children

"Where it really hurts is with our children," says Jeanie Jung, who moved to Dundalk from central Virginia 35 years ago and still retains traces of a lilting Southern drawl. "When my daughter, who's now 30, was in high school, she would go to other communities throughout Baltimore County to play lacrosse.

"And the [Dundalk] coaches would always say: 'When we go on the road, you dress [nicely], because coming from Dundalk, there will be comments and expectations that you're not as good as the next person."

George Dausch, who spent 22 years in Dundalk as the principal of the high school and junior high, says it was painful to accompany his high school students to other schools for games or other programs.

"I would watch the kids from other schools say [enthusiastically] 'I'm from this school!' and 'I'm from that school!' And then I'd watch our kids just sit back and not respond. I asked the kids: 'Where is this COMING from?' And the kids would say: 'Well, people think bad things of us, and say bad things about us.' "

Brian the basher

Brian Wilson, wearing a denim shirt and jeans, sits in a sunny courtyard outside Donna's coffee shop in Towson. He's sipping the house blend and picking at a low-fat muffin, which is how you unwind when you're 48 years old and in this business 30 years.

"Can you believe that a woman said I was personally responsible for lowering all the property values in Dundalk?' he says.

To Brian Wilson, this whole why-are-you-ripping-Dundalk? business is much ado about nothing. He first started bashing the place in the mid-'80s, when he teamed with partner Don O'Brien on WCBM's then wildly successful "Brian and O'Brien Show." Back then, though, Dundalk officials tried to laugh the whole thing off. They even feted Mr. Wilson at a luncheon at the Dundalk Country Club, to demonstrate the community's sense of humor.

Yet the true genesis for this kind of comedy goes back to the late '70s and Mr. Wilson's days as a DJ in Baton Rouge, La. One day on the air, he butchered the name of a town, Brusley, which was supposed to be pronounced Broo-ley.

'I get off the air,' Mr. Wilson recalls, "and the GM calls me into his office and says 'What the hell did you do? Apparently these two little old ladies called and said 'Who the hell does he think he is? We've got a great little town here!'

"At that point, something clicked inside me and I said: 'All- RIGHT!'"

Bashing Brusley proved so successful that even the town fathers were forced to concede defeat, eventually giving Mr. Wilson a going-away dinner and the keys to the city.

Needless to say, the bit traveled with him to his next radio job in Atlanta, where he mercilessly drilled a Georgia burg named Snellville.

Moving to Baltimore in the mid-'80s for the "Brian and O'Brien Show," Mr. Wilson looked around for a town with a funny name. And lo and behold, he discovered Dundalk.

So naturally when Mr. Wilson began his second stint in Baltimore in July, it was time to open the bomb-bay doors on a familiar target.

"It was a legacy thing," Mr. Wilson explains. "What the focus groups had remembered about the 'Brian and O'Brien Show" was the Dundalk jokes. So we cranked them up again."

Can't understand it

Now, however, he says can't understand why some are taking this whole thing so personally.

"I wanna know,' he says, voice rising, "why all of a sudden do these [Dundalk] people have their panties in a wad? And now they're saying I'm ruining the kids? That's bull!

"What I'm doing is an act! It's a joke! And these people are taking it into the realm of psychology and personal feelings." This, it seems, is one reason why at public appearances these days, Mr. Wilson is tailed by a bodyguard, an off-duty Baltimore County policeman built along the lines of a stand-up freezer.

"The bottom line is this," says Mr. Wilson. "If Dundalk got an enema today and everything was fine tomorrow and it was a model community, I'd STILL make fun of them.

"Mainly because of the name. It's a funny name and this is my business. Jokes are me.

" Hey, if they can influence the comedic content of my show, what's next?"

*

At Squire's, Tom Toporovich, Rich Bell and Lorenzo Romiti sip iced teas and continue attacking a subject dear to their hearts.

The subject now is: Dundalk-bashing -- Why It Doesn't Bother Me. And each man seems to be doing a worse job of pretending not to be bothered.

"Nah, it doesn't bother me,' says Mr. Bell. "I know there are a lot of good people here."

"It doesn't bother me AT ALL," says Mr. Romiti. "I know who I am, I know what I am and I know how I feel."

A moment of silence passes, and then Mr. Romiti places his glass on the table a bit too carefully.

"But the assumption is," he says, grinding an ice cube between )) his teeth, "that if you're working class, you're uneducated, stupid and don't even have the ability to do well."

All three men nod their heads solemnly. THAT seems to bother them a great deal.

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