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Bring back Baltimore City Fair


THE BALTIMORE CITY Fair was born 30 years ago today. People gathered at this annual event for 21 years to celebrate Baltimore City, its neighborhoods and institutions.

The city fair was fun, exciting and educational. It was symbolic of Baltimore's renaissance after a period of racial divisiveness and urban decay. Yet it ended in 1991, a victim of neglect by the city administration, financial problems and constantly changing scenery.

Nine years ago, city leaders claimed the original purpose of the fair -- to persuade residents to visit downtown -- had been fulfilled. But the reasons for the fair were more complex. A look back to the first fair shows why it was needed then and, more importantly, why we need it today.

The fair's first executive director, Hope Quackenbush, said in 1970 that the community event was "intended to showcase to the entire Baltimore population the true strengths of a city determined to solve its problems, to help neighborhoods help themselves and to capture the flavor of a fascinating and exciting city ...

"In place of the traditional exposition of agriculture one finds at a county fair, our fair will display the product of the city, its people and its culture. Each participating neighborhood will have on display the elements that make it unique and special ...

"The participating neighborhoods will come from every corner of Baltimore -- restoration communities, black communities, ethnic communities, garden communities, golden age communities -- all presenting one message, We are Baltimore."

That first city fair featured local entertainers, not national celebrities. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, seeking a wider audience, presented a free concert the first night. Baltimore's own Ethel Ennis was the featured entertainer on Saturday night.

Awards were presented for neighborhood improvement, preservation, education and the media. Community groups promoted their neighborhoods. Local institutions spotlighted their contributions to Baltimore, and city agencies announced services that were available to residents.

A midway with rides, cotton candy and fireworks added to the excitement and enticed families to attend. Black and white, rich and poor, young and old, urbanites and suburbanites poured into Charles Center for the three-day event. A Baltimore tradition was born, flourished and then needlessly disappeared.

Today, Baltimore has a new mayor. There is a spirit of resurgence and excitement. Resurrecting the city fair will symbolize Baltimore's return to prominence.

Unlike past fairs, let's not fence it off and charge admission. It should be free, like Artscape and perhaps underwritten by local companies. It should have easy access to all at a central location like the Inner Harbor or Camden Yards. It should showcase local neighborhoods, museums, institutions and civic associations. It should feature local musicians, films, videos, artists and craftspeople.

It should reward the contributions and achievements of local residents with prizes and blue ribbons. It should be everything the city fair once was, only bigger and better. For three days in September, all of Baltimore could be on display at the city fair.

The purpose of the city fair was not only to encourage people to visit downtown, but to restore the pride Baltimore citizens have in our fair city. More than ever, 21st-century Baltimore needs a city fair.

Fred B. Shoken is a Baltimore historian.

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