Home-grown institutions fail, while franchises thrive

GOODBYE City Life Museums, hello Arnold? Or is it Mr. Schwarzenegger? Actually, reference is made to Planet Hollywood, of which Mr. Schwarzenegger, the man who ate the world, is part owner. The same day we hear of the failure of the City Life Museums' celebration of Baltimore and the failure of the quaint, old Woman's Industrial Exchange to draw a lunch crowd, we get news that the hugely successful - everything Mr. Schwarzenegger touches is huge and successful - Planet Hollywood is coming to Harborplace. We'll be able to throw a cocktail cherry from the front door and hit the Hard Rock Cafe, another chain "theme" club. And don't forget Hooters, which already has a leg up.

I heard a couple of people (including a woman in Bel Air) express shock about this juxtaposition over the weekend - as if the displacement of parochial institutions by franchised ones offended them.


It's understandable. It's distressing. But you needn't be a tweedy think-tanker to recognize "market forces" at work.

Life lesson from the end of the American Century: What works here is what works everywhere else. Our eyes have been trained to look for the familiar and, for most Americans now, the familiar is what we see on TV, or on T shirts, or on the Internet. The familiar is not necessarily something unique; it's no longer what we know, personally and intimately, from experience. It's more likely something packaged and brought to us through mass media, and the same everywhere.


That's what works in a consumer society. Right now, anyway. And right now is what matters.

The City Life Museums had a lot of problems, the location of its impressive Blaustein Exhibition Center being one. From where the Jones Falls Expressway meets President Street, the museum appeared cutoff from the easy flow of traffic. It was an access/egress problem - if not in reality, at least in perception. As a name, City Life Museums didn't really work. (Something with "Baltimore" in it would be better.) And yes, they should consider putting Nipper on the roof to draw some attention.

But the most profound problem might have been the concept - exhibits of unique items from a bygone, predominantly white Baltimore fewer and fewer people know or care about. For most of the second half of this century, Baltimoreans have been leaving Baltimore. Increasing numbers depend less and less on the city for work, and even play. Like conventioneers, a lot of people who come to Baltimore from, say, Bel Air or Owings Mills, are essentially tourists.

Tourists desire attractions that are familiar, something they recognize on a drive by.

Older people - the mothers and fathers of the baby boom and some boomers themselves - are nostalgic for that old Baltimore. They still miss street cars, the downtown department stores, the neighborhood groceries and movie theaters. They speak of a time when people knew and spoke to their neighbors, when neighbors did not isolate themselves from others by staying indoors and watching TV, when you could walk to a bar or corner coffee shop and meet your friends, when you eschewed a chain store out of loyalty to a local retailer, when the Orioles had "Baltimore" in bold letters on their uniforms.

But something happened, and not just here. This is really a national phenomenon: Life, it seems, has become one big franchise - information via Bill Gates, entertainment from Disney, meals from fast-food chains, home and office supplies from the super chains, ideas packaged in sound bites, on Web sites and in song lyrics.

In Robert Bly's book "The Sibling Society," he describes America as an adolescent nation drunk on consumerism and pop culture, demanding quick pleasures and excitements. In the world of half-adults Bly describes, Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe coming to Baltimore, as home-grown institutions fade, makes perfect symbolic sense. As a sibling society, we want what our siblings everywhere else have; we want to create new rituals and instant traditions. We abide the franchising of our culture because we can't seem to do much about it and, more importantly, that's what boomers and post-boomers have come to know. "Market forces" are overpowering. We've been trained to trust the familiar, as seen on TV! We pass up the homely little diner for McDonald's. Instead of buying carpet tacks at the local hardware store - assuming there is a local hardware store - we drive to a super chain. Who'd have thought even Hechinger would feel the squeeze?

We're content to live in relative isolation from each other, connected by highway (real or computer-generated) to a mass society that generally feels safe because it looks pretty much the same all over. We're supposed to like it that way. We're advised to get used to it.


Pizzeria bucks trend

All is not lost. Consider the man from Bel Air who wandered into Matthew's Pizza on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown the other day. He was passing through, on his way back to Harford County, and stopped at the little pizza shop where, it seems, nothing has changed since World War II - especially the legendary recipe for tomato pie. The man seemed genuinely astonished that the place was still open, and that it looked and smelled just as it did when he was taking girls to the Patterson Theater (now closed) across the street. He took the tomato pies back to Bel Air, and I had the distinct feeling he'd make the Matthew's run again.

Pub Date: 6/23/97