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Can Light City redefine Baltimore?

Can Light City redefine Baltimore?
Baltimore,MD-3/28/16 -- Light City Baltimore officially opens with the Creative Alliance Light City Lantern Parade from Rash Field to President Street. Lloyd Fox/Staff #38668 (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The organizers of Light City want the seven-day festival to eventually rebrand Baltimore. And I'll admit, at times it feels like we need a little rebranding. The Washington Post has mocked us for our homicide rate, Johns Hopkins fellows and their families say they're afraid to move here, and National Geographic crowned us "the heroin capital of America" in 2014.

And today, nearly a year after the death of Freddie Gray and all the promises of vague change that followed, there is little obvious transformation in the city, save for the inaugural light show underway around the Inner Harbor and in select city neighborhoods. New allegations of police brutality keep surfacing, young black men keep dying, and the city's segregated school system still can't lift most low income-students out of poverty.

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So, yeah, we could use an overhaul of more than just our image. But I'm not sure Light City is the vehicle to do it. It feels a little inorganic, a little forced for that — and maybe just a little patronizing. As if all Baltimore needs is a good annual show.

As an art festival, though, it's pretty cool.

On Wednesday, I left The Sun at sunset and headed south on Calvert Street a half mile to the water. It was still light out, but the harbor was already hopping. More than the art installations, that's what stood out: the life. There were couples and singles and families with strollers and young people and older folks and whites and blacks and browns out in the evening in Baltimore — walking, talking and taking selfies in front of anything shiny. The restaurants and walkways were pleasantly full, and the air was buzzing with the hum of music and conversation. It felt like a city.

The creations were both better and worse than you'd expect, with the real standouts being the pieces that added elements of surprise and wonder. A boy of around 9, for example, was completely floored by images projected on a wall of mist over the water: "It's a hologram!" he cried, delighted. "How is that even possible?!?"

In all, about 50 works of art, theater and music — along with outdoor restaurant and bar pop ups — line 1.5 miles of harbor, from Rash Field near the Maryland Science Center to Harbor East's high-end hotels. That's all free through the final day, this Sunday, and therefore open to everyone who can get there. The daytime conference component this week addressing particular areas of innovation is not; tickets ran $200 to $250 per two-day conference.

Overall, the festival, which has been in the works for three years, cost roughly $3.5 million to produce. But University of Baltimore economist Richard Clinch estimates that it could bring in as much as $30 million for the city this week — not a bad return on investment. Whether it does and who that benefits remains to be seen, along with whether it lasts. The organizers like to compare Light City to Austin's SXSW (South by Southwest) festival, which drew about 700 people when it began in Texas in 1987 and last year attracted 90,000 and $317 million. And light festivals are catching on, they say; they have them in Sydney and London and Montreal and Berlin.

But Baltimore is not any of those places, and we've been let down by so-called transformational events before (remember the Grand Prix?). I thought about that as I walked back up Calvert Street in the dark to my car, in a few blocks passing six homeless people already bedded down for the night on the sidewalks.

There's a lot of discussion nowadays about what needs to be done in Baltimore, especially by those vying to become the city's next mayor. And it's true that those with means already have a lot to appreciate in Charm City: quality restaurants and museums and theater and music. Adding a festival that brings people downtown and together to the list is by all means welcome — certainly much more so than a slogan, say. ("Get in on it," anyone?)

But it's not going to solve the city's problems. To truly change the perception of Baltimore, we have to change Baltimore where it matters.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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