'City That Reads' makes way for slogan with greatest goal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Close the book on "The City That Reads." Welcome to "The Greatest City in America."

A year after being elected, Mayor Martin O'Malley has changed Baltimore's official slogan.

The new tag replaces the phrase established 13 years ago by O'Malley's Rhodes Scholar predecessor, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, to replace William Donald Schaefer's "Baltimore Is Best."

O'Malley has been quietly testing his new mantra, placing it on the city Web site and hanging a sign outside his office.

But the mayor made the phrase - which he used to close his campaign speeches and inauguration address - official when workers stenciled it on a bus stop bench at St. Paul and Saratoga streets this week.

And, as expected, the term is getting mixed responses.

"Ha!" said Danny Brown, 23, of Park Heights, who was walking to the Inner Harbor with two friends last night. "How about 'The City That Pretends'? Or 'The City That Acts Like It Cares'?"

One of Brown's friends couldn't get past the fact that "The Greatest City in America" had the country's second-highest homicide rate last year. "How about 'Bodymore, Murderland,'" he said.

O'Malley said he expects the snickering. Those are the kinds of attitudes he's trying to change with the slogan, he said.

"We're setting the bar, trying to raise expectations," O'Malley said. "I'm not going to gloss over the problems, and I've been preaching about how we have the highest per-capita heroin use in the nation. But visuals are important when you are trying to mobilize a city."

Longtime Baltimore residents checking out the newly painted bench instantly got the message.

"Hey!" a smiling Dolores Chambers of Northwest Baltimore said.

"I've been here for 53 years, and I've been to a lot of cities that I don't want to go back to," she said. "And I've always come back to Baltimore."

Schmoke unveiled his "City That Reads" slogan as a tool to boost city literacy rates. Although Schmoke's slogan was part of a campaign designed to help increase literacy among the city's adults, it became routinely ridiculed because city schools were considered the state's worst.

And as the city homicide and teen pregnancy rates rose, naysayers twisted the phrase into the mocking "City That Bleeds" and "City That Breeds." Schmoke declined to comment on the end of his slogan yesterday, but Betty Carneal of Brooklyn said she was sad to see it go.

"It still should be," Carneal said, sitting on the new bench. "It gets more people to read."

Schaefer is credited with the sobriquet "Charm City," which was established in 1975 with the help of area advertising agencies.

He also created occasional pitches such as "Trash Ball" to rally residents. Yesterday, Schaefer lauded O'Malley's effort.

"What he's trying to do, and I applaud him, is to hype everybody," Schaefer said. "He's a cheerleader."

The change, which is expected to appear on dozens of city benches by spring, won't cost the city any new money, O'Malley said, because it will be paid through the annual city's public works maintenance budget.

And the mayor won't put his name or the new slogan on city trucks, as Schaefer and Schmoke did.

Instead, O'Malley will put a circular yellow and black city seal with Baltimore's Washington Monument on the trucks.

O'Malley said he means no disrespect by trumping the Schmoke slogan but felt it was time for a change. One slogan considered was "The Come Back City," which O'Malley said didn't seem upbeat enough.

"It's not a matter of his slogan being bad; thanks to a lot of his work, the school system improved," O'Malley said of Schmoke. "Now, it's time to take it to the next level."

And removing "The City That Reads" doesn't mean literacy is no longer a Baltimore priority. "We wouldn't be the greatest city if we weren't literate, now would we?" O'Malley said.

Tracy Gosson, director of the Live Baltimore Marketing Center, which works to attract new city residents, welcomed the slogan.

"It's about time that someone stood up and was positive," Gosson said. "It shows how real the mayor's passion is for this city."

Gosson acknowledged that by making such a boast, O'Malley is putting pressure on himself.

"That was the problem with the last slogan," Gosson said. "If you're going to say it, there better be something behind it."

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