For decades, Baltimore has been a stand-in for struggling cities everywhere, becoming the butt of jokes or a cautionary tale of decline. Baltimore city officials have reacted to these criticisms and slights with defensive, superficial boosterism and costly marketing campaigns that attempt to rally the public with slogans while ignoring real problems. While it’s satisfying to call President Trump a rat, let’s not lose sight of the need for real social justice in Baltimore, rather than more empty boosterism.
Baltimore’s bad image dates back at least to the early twentieth century. During the Great Depression, the writers of the Works Progress Administration’s guide to Maryland noted that Baltimore had “rarefied aristocrats,” but also “dismal slums” and “rat-infested streets” near the waterfront. Baltimore, they damned with faint praise, “may be an ugly city, nevertheless it is charmingly picturesque in its ugliness.” In the musical “Kiss Me Kate,” which premiered on Broadway in 1948, Fred Graham, the male lead, asks the president of the United States, “is it true you’ve declared Baltimore a disaster area?” a joke with no purpose other than to jab at Baltimore, which had become, by then, a punch line.
In 1979, singer-songwriter Randy Newman included a song called, “Baltimore,” on his hit album, “Little Criminals.” The song describes Baltimore as a “hard town by the sea,” populated by lost souls, from prostitutes to alcoholics. The “city’s dyin’,’” and the best the narrator can hope for is to escape to the country. Although Mr. Newman admitted that he had only ever passed through Baltimore on a train, he used the city to represent urban decay everywhere.
Baltimore rallied in response to these slights. The city’s comptroller, Hyman Pressman, wrote a poem extolling Baltimore’s virtues in verse. “We have a City that is bloomin’” he wrote, “but Randy Newman isn’t human.” Radio station WIYY-FM even collected angry letters from listeners that they presented to Mr. Newman at a concert in the city.
Since the mid-1970s, the mayor’s office has expended huge amounts of money and energy trying to counter these negative images with positive ones — usually by hiring urban branding and marketing firms to come up with catchy slogans. Charm City was considered a failure in 1974, but is its best remembered. Others, like Baltimore is Best (which only had alliteration going for it) to the hyperbolic The Greatest City in America made image more important than reality. Rather than policies dealing directly with poverty, and rising rates of homicide, disease and unemployment, taxpayer dollars paid for billboards, bus benches and consultants, as if those would convince the people living in the city not to believe their own eyes and ears.
Boosterism disguises problems rather than solves them. It creates pretty images of the city to draw certain kinds of business investment and tourists.
When Martin O’Malley was still a city council member in the early 1990s, he criticized how the TV show “Homicide” presented Baltimore’s crime rate. As mayor, he infamously called creator David Simon after the filming permits for “The Wire” were blocked and told him that he wanted the city “to be out of ‘The Wire’ business.” Although he capitulated, for him, presenting a sanitized image of Baltimore trumped the fact that the show employed many locals and supported local businesses.
Now, Baltimore officials have launched a website, WeAreBaltimore, which has also become a popular hashtag. The website will become a space for “communities and stakeholders to engage and share their positive experiences and highlight the many ways they are creating a promising future for the city they’ve invested in and choose to live, learn, leisure and do business.” The tweets, too, have overwhelmingly discussed the positive aspects of this great city.
But some longtime activists with large Twitter followings — like Kaye Wise Whitehead, Carol Ott and Lawrence Brown — have pushed back on the boosterism, arguing that problems like uneven development, gentrification, police targeting of young black men, lead exposure and housing insecurity can’t simply be ignored by focusing on the positive. Certainly, this is what Baltimore’s history has taught us.
While Mr. Trump's tweets about rats and corruption are full of racist innuendo and are unacceptable coming from the president, this moment is an opportunity for Baltimore city officials and business and civic leaders to learn from the past and respond with more than empty words. From the Healthy Holly scandal that brought down Mayor Pugh to the Gun Trace Task Force’s thuggish tactics, Baltimore has been reeling from scandals and corruption. Listen to Baltimore activists and community leaders, among others, and honestly address the real problems of the city.
Mary Rizzo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant professor of history at Rutgers University-Newark and author of “Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire,” forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.