It has been a brutal month for Baltimore’s image.
The March 17 cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured two row houses in shadows and darkness with the headline: “The Tragedy of Baltimore.” The subhead written as if it might be graph showing steady decline said: “How an American City Falls Apart.” The story of the surge in violent crime and the toll it has taken on Baltimore’s civic life was published online March 12.
On March 13, the Baltimore Sun broke the story of Mayor Catherine Pugh receiving $500,000 for self-published “Healthy Holly” children books from the University of Maryland Medical System where she was serving on the board. Written by Luke Broadwater, the story was followed on an almost daily basis by further Sun reports of self-dealing among UMMS, Pugh and other members of the board.
On March 29, former police commissioner Darryl De Sousa was sentenced to 10 months in prison as a result of failing to file income tax returns for three years and inflating deductions when he did file. De Sousa had been picked to be Baltimore’s top cop by Pugh, who initially stood with him and minimized his crimes when federal prosecutors first announced charges against him. The sentencing judge called it “a sad day for our city.”
Gov. Larry Hogan has since called for a criminal investigation in connection with the UMMS scandal, and Pugh has gone on indefinite leave amid further Sun revelations this week that her Healthy Holly LLC also received another $300,000 from Associated Black Charities, Kaiser Permanente and Columbia businessman J.P. Grant. Some of that money from Kaiser was paid while the health insurer was negotiating a $48 million contract to cover Baltimore City workers.
And amid all this, what did a prominent city booster say we need to turn things around? A show like “Sex and the City” set in Baltimore.
As I watched cable TV coverage of Baltimore burning with 114 fires on the night of Freddie Gray’s funeral four years ago this month, the only comfort I could find was in the thought that the city I loved could not possibly ever look worse to the world than it did at that profoundly sad moment.
But events this past month proved me wrong. Here I am this week at the keyboard and on CNN writing and talking about the image of Baltimore.
I was hardly the only one talking about it this week in the wake of The Sun’s latest Pugh revelations.
On Hearst-owned WBAL Radio Monday, host Brett Hollander told his listeners: “For the reputation of this town and where we are now, it’s ugly. It is ugly. … This is such a humiliating moment in time.”
On Morgan State University’s public radio station WEAA, Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead, host of “Today with Dr. Kaye,” was just as passionate and angry on her afternoon show Tuesday.
After questioning the mayor’s deals with Associated Black Charities and Kaiser Permanente and then listening to a caller lament the lack of public outrage about corrupt politicians, Whitehead urged those in her audience who might not appreciate the urgency of the moment to “wake up” because “the future of our city is at stake right now.”
And then, she really let it rip.
“Every time Baltimore City ends up in the public light, we are a spectacle, we are a joke,” she said. “It is a travesty. Whether it was last year with our babies not having heat in their schools, that was a national story. That was an embarrassment. Whether it’s this Gun Trace Task force, corrupt police officers. A national story, embarrassing. Whether it’s the ways we’re dealing with De Sousa. A national story, embarrassing. And here we are with the mayor.”
She urged her listeners to get involved in the political life of the city and speak out: “Now is not the time to be quiet,” she said.
“Amen, Dr. Kaye,” I thought.
I had no amen’s for some of the things I heard Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, say Monday on public radio WYPR’s “Midday” show during a discussion about the Times magazine story.
When asked about the story written by Baltimore resident (and Sun alumnus) Alec MacGillis, Fowler said, “Well, first of all, Alec MacGillis, if he wrote an 8,000-word essay or love letter about Baltimore, I don’t think the Times would have published it. I know Alec MacGillis. We follow each other on Twitter. He says a lot of nice things about Baltimore. But the New York Times will not post something like that or publish something like that … “
“Hmmm, that’s not the Times I know,” I thought.
Host Tom Hall politely challenged Fowler with the mention of a story published by the Times on March 22 that was headlined “Why Baltimore Persists as a Cultural Beacon.”
Featuring John Waters, Anne Tyler, Joyce J. Scott and David Simon, it certainly seemed positive to me. But not so much to Fowler.
“But the headline was, ‘It persists’ in Baltimore,” Fowler said, emphasizing the word persists. “’Culture ‘persists’ in Baltimore. So it’s snarky. It comes from first ignorance of Baltimore. And there’s some condescension ...”
I did not read the headline or story that way, but Fowler’s entitled to his reading of the text.
In answer to a Hall question about how Baltimore can turn its image around, Fowler mentioned local marketing and his wish for a national TV series that would showcase parts of Baltimore that Simon’s HBO drama “The Wire” didn’t.
“In my opinion, I think New York City turned around more because of ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Friends,’” he said. “Especially ‘Sex and the City,’ because you got to see women walking in and out of department stores, or retail stores, and that changed the impression. So, I think it’s important to have a few different versions of what’s happening here.”
I would argue that fixing serious police problems did far more to turn around New York City than three TV series, which, by the way, were often criticized for their all-white starring casts. A TV show can make your city look as glamorous and exciting as you want. But if people get mugged or shot when they visit, they won’t be back.
Furthermore, there are already some different versions of “what’s happening here” in Baltimore that have taken root in popular culture. Tyler’s working and middle class milieu of families, homes and shops is not Simon’s world of drug corners, cop shops and housing projects. And Tyler’s audience is hardly niche. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist has sold hundreds of thousands of books, some of which have been made into network movies with stars like James Garner and Joanne Woodward.
There are, however, two images that dominate depictions of Baltimore today: abandoned row houses and night-time crime scenes.
While we often think of such visuals as the primary source of what we call our city’s image, such optics actually grow out of narratives. And the narrative that both of those visuals grow out of is the one that says Baltimore is a dysfunctional, dangerous and deeply corrupt city that operates in the interests of various elites even as it fails to protect and often exploits its citizens.
That’s what is so destructive about Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” deals: They offer proof positive to some of the corruption and dysfunction narrative. They bake that narrative into more and more minds around the world. And this comes courtesy of the mayor who urged us to “change the narrative,” the person we chose to lead us after the uprising when almost everyone in the city agreed we no longer had any margin for error if we wanted Baltimore to have a future.
Like WEAA’s Whitehead, I also am angry — angry and sad.
This week, I screened a documentary about Baltimore titled “Charm City” that will air on PBS April 22. Working like ethnographers, filmmaker Marilyn Ness and her team burrowed deeply into the culture of the Rose Street community in Baltimore to show residents there, along with some police officers and an elected official, working against tremendous hardships and odds to try to make Baltimore better in the wake of Gray’s death.
Visually powerful, this is the Baltimore of “The Wire.” In fact, at times, it looks even harsher. (Sorry, no Carrie Bradshaws buying impossibly expensive shoes here.)
There are moments when it seems as if Ness is filming in a Third World country, the living conditions are so challenging and poor. And that’s depressing.
But the film is also inspirational in the determination, tenacity, hope, integrity and sense of community among the people on Rose Street who pick up dust pans and brooms every day and try to clean up the poverty, decay and neglect that surrounds them.
There are heroes here in the biggest sense of that word going back to the ancient Greeks. Clayton Guyton, who founded the Rose Street Community Center, is one them. Alex Long, a protege of Guyton’s, is another. To me, Long is the hope for the future of our beleaguered city.
It is heartbreaking to see some of the setbacks they suffer and the grit with which they continue to battle for a better city. But it is also infuriating to watch them now with the knowledge of a growing City Hall scandal that mocks their faith in the city and threatens to betray their efforts.
In the film, we see residents of Rose Street coming to Guyton’s center early in the morning to get bus money so that they can get to work. In The Sun, meanwhile, we read of Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC collecting $100,000 checks from business and civic elites. Two Baltimores, indeed.
I have said this before, but after decades of studying media and reporting and writing about it, one thing I know to be true is that you cannot brand or market your way out of what WBAL’s Hollander called the “humiliating” and “ugly” place Baltimore now holds in the global mind. And no network, cable or streamed series is going to magically appear to change that.
What we need is a real-life reckoning of the righteous to fix the problems in the schools and the corruption in the police department and City Hall. And that needs to be accompanied by a very public naming, shaming and purge of the boardroom and backroom grifters and dealers.
Start there, and be amazed at how Baltimore’s image will begin to change for the better.