After Baltimore riots, fighting an image that paints a city 'with no control over itself'

What we talk about when we talk about Baltimore

Chris Everett wants the world to know that Baltimore is more than looted buildings, protesters lobbing rocks and police in riot gear.

"The way Baltimore is being shown on TV doesn't reflect on the city I've come to know and love," said Everett, 62.

The Union Square resident took to social media to post images of what he believes is Baltimore's true essence — diverse, creative, resilient.

Baltimoreans — residents, business leaders and politicians — have grappled with tough questions about the city's image in recent days. Will the looping footage of burning buildings, convoys of Humvees and reports of police brutality define the city? Or will Baltimore rise stronger from the ashes?

As tourism officials pull brand-new marketing ads from the airwaves, some experts worry that Baltimore could be synonymous with violence, lawlessness and fury for years to come. And altering that perception, they contend, calls for substantive change that Baltimoreans themselves can believe in.

Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents the portions of West Baltimore hardest hit in Monday's chaos, said the city faces a "pivotal moment."

The rage and destruction after the death of Freddie Gray — who suffered a nearly severed spine and crushed voice box while in police custody — lays bare the "truth about urban life in America," Mosby said.

Monday's violence, which caused more than 150 fires, resulted in more than 200 arrests and left 15 officers injured, validated "anything that folks took out of 'The Wire,'" Mosby said, referring to the gritty HBO series set in Baltimore.

But Mosby found inspiration in the hundreds of residents who came out to help Tuesday morning.

"Out of that full-fledged riot, the next day people are sweeping the streets, people are cleaning together, people are getting together to take the city back," Mosby said.

And that is the image that the city needs to project to heal, he said.

"It shows the resiliency of Baltimore," said Mosby. "That's how I know this is not going to have a damning impact on our city."

Photos and videos of brass bands, dancers on roller skates, gospel singers and prayer circles at the site of Monday's violence have flooded social media sites this week, bearing tags such as "ThisIsBaltimore" and "OneBaltimore."

Many have griped that national media coverage had been overly focused on the tumult — playing down the peaceful protests in the wake of Freddie Gray's death. But officials and experts acknowledge that the recent events have marred the city's image.

"We're going to have to tackle how the perception of the city suffered in the last few days," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership.

The impact on tourism is uncertain. At least one conference, a gathering of 2,000 members of the Door and Hardware Institute, which had been planned for a weekend has been canceled — a projected loss of $1.2 million, according to Tom Noonan, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore.

A meeting of the American Heart Association has been canceled, as has It's Time, a women's leadership gathering. A conference of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association has been postponed.

Visit Baltimore has yanked a series of ads featuring celebrities discussing their favorite parts of the city. The $1 million marketing campaign is on pause for the next few months, Noonan said.

"Right now, running tourism ads out in the marketplace is probably not resonating with anybody, so it's better to save those dollars and use them when they'll be more effective," Noonan said. His group is scrambling to draft a new message in the interim.

Noonan believes that Baltimore will be able to shake off the negative messaging, much as New Orleans rebuilt its image after Hurricane Katrina.

"I think in the long term you'll see a recovery," said Noonan. "I'm proud of this city and I know a lot of people are. We're up to the challenge."

Gov. Larry Hogan underscored the work needed to repair Baltimore's reputation and attract visitors.

"Tourism is important to the city. Baltimore is a beautiful, wonderful place," Hogan said. "This is not representative of the way things usually are in Baltimore."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledges concerns about the city's portrayal in recent days but was optimistic that the city's reputation could be repaired.

"I'm blessed to have a lot of resources and people who want Baltimore's image to be better, who want to come in and help us with ... rehabilitating our image," she said.

Tracy Gosson, president of Sagesse Inc., a marketing firm that works with government agencies and nonprofits, said the only way to improve the city's image is to get residents to buy into it.

"No one from the outside is going to believe what you say unless the people inside are behind it," Gosson said.

Gosson said that addressing systemic problems in poorer neighborhoods — the concerns raised by many protesters — is crucial to repairing the city's image.

"Everyone has to rise with the tides," she said. "Everything going forward has to be done in a thoughtful way to say we're going to do it better."

Gosson was the founding director of Live Baltimore, the nonprofit charged with drawing new residents to the city, a position she held from 1998 to 2007. She does not believe the recent turmoil will have a significant impact on the twenty- and thirty-something residents who have flocked to the city in recent years.

"The beauty of young professionals, millennials, is they have a high tolerance for urban life and everything that goes with it," she said.

Sarah Bichsel is one of those young professionals. The 24-year-old, who moved from Columbus, Ohio, two years ago, said she has been inundated with texts and calls from worried relatives and friends.

"There's a misunderstanding about how frequent and widespread the destruction is," said Bichsel, who lives in Mount Vernon. "At one point, my mother asked me if I were in front of that enormous fire" in East Baltimore.

Bichsel, who works at Center Stage, said she loves Baltimore, especially the vibrant arts scene. She appreciates the concern from friends from out of town, but tries to explain to them some of the systemic issues that fueled rioters' rage.

Loyola University Maryland communications professor Karsonya Wise Whitehead fears that the communities that saw stores burned and looted this week could take decades to recover.

Residents and political leaders had campaigned for years to bring new retail stores to West Baltimore, especially to the Mondawmin shopping center, which was badly damaged Monday.

"I wonder if big businesses like Target are going to want to put stores here," said Whitehead. "Target not only gives people toilet paper and paper towels, but it gives people jobs."

Whitehead, the author of "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America," said she feared the violence had led to a loss of credibility.

Before the riots, "Baltimore still had people's sympathy," she said. Now, the city appeared to be "a place that had no control over itself."

"In the eyes of some, it's a rebellion. For others, it's a revolution," she said. "But this will go down in history as a riot."

Baltimore knows the aftereffects of unrest. Shortly after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the city exploded. Six people were killed and hundreds of properties burned or otherwise destroyed, compared with the scattered nonfatal injuries and burnings this week.

As City Councilman Brandon Scott said this week, some of the neighborhoods devastated by the '60s riots hadn't recovered before they were struck again on Monday.

Many blame the 1968 riots for the exodus of residents and businesses from the city, a link that University of Baltimore history professor Elizabeth M. Nix says is not quite as direct as it seems. The city had begun losing population in 1950, nearly 20 years before the riots, and businesses that closed often did so for reasons unrelated to the disturbances.

But the perception remains nonetheless and colors how Baltimore is perceived, Nix said.

"Community memory really matters," said Nix, who co-edited the anthology "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City."

"It was a convenient hook to say, 'Oh, well, that violence happened; that is what Baltimore is about,'" Nix said. "It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people wanted to move somewhere else or not invest in the city, that image of violence stayed in their minds."

Nix said residents, businesses and local officials worked to rebuild the city and its image through ads and the late, lamented City Fair.

She expects a similar embrace of the city after this week's unrest.

"People love this city. People love Baltimore," Nix said. "When it gets hurt, they are really sad. People felt that same way almost 50 years ago."

That sadness has been palpable for author and community leader Wes Moore.

"Turning on the TV and seeing Baltimore is the lead story in every news cycle is hard," said Moore. "This is my home. This is where I am raising my kids."

Baltimore must seize this moment to redress systemic problems and grow, Moore said.

"We have to be honest about where we are," he said. "We have to come out of this stronger."

Baltimore Sun reporters Natalie Sherman, Yvonne Wenger and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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