In TV's glare, a city less than charming

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sure, it could get worse. The U.S. Department of State could issue the following advisory: " U.S. Citizens are warned not to travel to Baltimore, Md., for any reason, due to the ongoing civil war of homicide, drug addiction, AIDS and venereal disease."

That, finally, would signal the low point on the image meter for a city which, a mere 15 years ago, was riding high as a showpiece of urban renaissance, home to America's shiniest waterfront and a "genius mayor" (or so Howard Cosell said of William Donald Schaefer to millions of viewers of the 1983 World Series).

But now television gives us "Hopkins 24 / 7," oozing with the blood of Baltimore, close on the blighted heels of "The Corner," a grim portrait of the city following in the chalk-outline footsteps of "Homicide."

Interspersed along the way have been an outburst of VD-Capital-of-America jokes from "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno and further reports from the U.S. Census Bureau that Baltimore's citizenry is fleeing at a rate of about 1,000 escapees a month.

Even the good news has been tainted. Baltimore's selection as the site for a Center for Human Virology a few years back seemed like pretty hot stuff until one of the winning reasons turned out to be the city's AIDS epidemic, meaning more subjects for clinical research.

How bad have things gotten? Consider the reaction of foreign journalist Emir Salihovic when he was informed earlier this year he'd have to spend five weeks in Baltimore.

"My first thought was 'Homicide,' and then a bunch of pictures came back to my mind: Baltimore police cruising vehicles ... murders, drugs, dirty streets," he says by e-mail. "I actually wondered if I really wanna go there!"

And Salihovic lives in Sarajevo, of which the State Department said not so long ago, "U.S. Citizens are warned not to travel to ..." And so on, leaving one to wonder whether Baltimore will soon be announced as the next location for "Survivor."

Renewing Baltimore's charm

"It's a drag, there's no doubt about it," says Tracy Glosson, director of Live Baltimore Marketing, a sort of official cheerleader for living in the city. "It gets kind of old after a while."

Justin Laupert gets tired of it, too. A Butchers Hill resident, he's one of about 150 Baltimoreans who has signed on with Glosson's outfit as a "city ambassador," dedicated to spreading the good word about Charm City.

Laupert says when he mentioned Baltimore to out-of-towners five years ago, it usually prompted a cheery spiel about baseball Iron Man Cal Ripken or the sights of the Inner Harbor.

Now, with Cal benched and "Homicide" in syndicated re-runs, Laupert hears more often about crime and grime.

"If you pick a topic like murder or drugs and you pinpoint the worst part of the city, and then put that on national television, what kind of conception do you think people are going to have?" he says.

He wishes he could show them the scenes of people playing with their dogs in Patterson Park, young couples fixing up homes near the Canton waterfront, or the "genius mayor" himself, Schaefer, dropping by Needful Things on O'Donnell Street for breakfast just like a regular guy.

"They don't have TV shows about things like that," he says. "But you talk about New York and you've got 'Friends' on TV, and you had 'Cheers' in Boston."

The injustice of it all then moves him to say about his neighborhood, "I feel safe walking home at 4 in the morning."

Out of denial

Well, now wait a minute there.

That kind of boast will get you an argument from people such as Pat Moran, who sees this image business from several angles at once. Not only is she a lifelong and loyal city resident, but she also was casting director for "Homicide" and is a pal of Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, who has always advocated the civic slogan "Come to Baltimore and Be Appalled."

"I don't understand these people getting their noses out of joint [about a declining image]," Moran says. "The last decade, this city has disintegrated into a war zone, and if people get overheated about it, then what do they think it feels like for the woman whose kid was sitting on a sofa and was killed when a bullet comes through the window? ... There was a point in Baltimore City in the last three or four years where if you rode up Calvert Street or some place like that, every third house had a for sale sign. People had given up. We've just come off of 12 years of some people being in major denial."

If the Chamber of Commerce was part of that denial, then maybe those days are ending. Two months ago the chamber invited none other than Waters to be the honored guest at its annual meeting. Sort of like the Junior League naming a local madam its woman of the year.

Waters responded in character, exhorting his audience to start promoting the city's more offbeat attractions, such as the local bar that sports a "wall of snot."

"If you're ever depressed in Baltimore," he said, "just go sit outside and something worse will happen."

Making the most of it

Such reasoning fits oddly with the campaign that helped lure the Human Virology Center to town. Got a public health crisis? Make it work for you! Even wretchedness can be a tool for economic development.

Or, as Waters said of another of the city's perceived blights, "Don't tear down The Block. Make it better."

He may have been joking, but others have already suggested as much. Former state Sen. "American Joe" Miedusiewski proposed a few years ago on behalf of a lobbying client that nude dancing nightspots would help dress up Baltimore's "pro-business climate."

That's hardly the kind of proposal you'll be hearing anytime soon from Dan Lincoln. He's vice president of tourism and communications for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, a position you'd think would make him a little edgy about all the TV shows that have featured Baltimore in recent years.

But Lincoln has done this sort of work in enough cities now to realize that boosters often get unnecessarily overwrought over the way popular culture portrays their favorite towns.

"Every city freaks out and worries about the latest article or TV show that's been done," he says. In Cincinnati, people even worried about the sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati," believing everyone would think the city was loaded with buffoons.

"What you really find out when you step back is that people don't really associate the TV show with the city," he says. Or that, even when they do, they're attracted as much as they're repelled.

Consider "Homicide," for example, and the reaction of foreign journalist Salihovic. Sure, the images of the show made even a Sarajevo resident leery of coming.

"But, at the same time, I liked the show," Salihovic says. "It was really well done, and I wanted to see the town where it was staged. So, although the TV show gave me the impression of Baltimore as the worker's town where a lot of crime is going on, at the same time that very same show attracted me."

"It's like that old adage," Lincoln says, "It's better that you're talking about me than not talking about me at all."

As for tourists, he says, "They're probably not going to make a decision on whether or not to visit the harbor based on 'Homicide.'"

Businesses looking for new locations are another matter. Image goes a long way with them, and on this front shows such as "Hopkins 24 / 7" or "The Corner," which come straight from the real-life tales of the streets, can be more worrisome.

"Something that's more news-oriented, like 'The Corner,' now that can be a little more damaging," Lincoln says. "In that sense, it starts to have more of an impact."

A glimmer of good

Not all the recent image news has been bad. The city got a boost this past week with an upbeat mini-profile of new Mayor Martin O'Malley on NBC's "Today" show.

Well, sort of a boost.

While the report touted the mayor-musician O'Malley as "someone to boast about" and part of "a bold, brash new beat" in Baltimore, it also mentioned "an estimated 40,000 buildings vacant or abandoned in this city, which has been dubbed America's murder and heroin capital."

But even the image realists such as Moran say having an energetic cheerleader in City Hall should help, if only psychologically.

Who can forget what Schaefer did in that department, Gosson says.

"Schaefer was the king of PR and spin," he says. "He knew how to take something that was a kernel and make it run for years."

Lincoln hopes to get a clearer reading on all this image business in the fall, when his employer will join the Baltimore Zoo, the National Aquarium and the Orioles in sponsoring an "attitude and awareness study" to find out what people within a few hours drive of here really think of Baltimore.

"And one thing it will tell us is, are these perceptions of high crime and grime starting to add up?" he says.

Ought to be just in time for the first reruns of "The Corner."

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