A couple years back during a conversation about Occupy Wall Street, a former colleague of mine at City Paper asked me what the point of it all was. “I mean, what did they accomplish, really?” he said.
(Oh, maybe the introduction of the term “income inequality” into public discourse?)
Now that City Paper won’t even be around as fishwrap — the Baltimore Sun Media Group bought the paper in 2014 and announced plans to close it earlier this year; its last issue is Wednesday — it seems fair to turn the tables: During its 40-year run as the yellow-boxed purveyor of all things alternative in Baltimore, what did it accomplish, really?
Given all the glum postmortems I’ve been reading lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the paper heated a steady stew of groundbreaking news, out-of-the-mainstream politics coverage and astonishingly original imagery.
It didn’t. But City Paper never set out to do any of those things, nor did most of the alt-weeklies that popped up around the country during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It never brought down a mayor or police chief or connected the dots of the city’s underbelly in a way that led to results, nor will it be remembered for the visual freshness of its front page, because it hadn’t any.
To appreciate what the paper gave the city, you have to go beyond the club-you-over-the-head obvious and think about what Baltimore was like pre-1977, when the alt-weekly was founded: a riot-torn, deindustrializing Rust Belt dump that no tourist or suburbanite wanted to visit. The most pressing and compelling of those problems are still with us. Expecting a media outlet to solve pervasive societal inequities is preposterous.
City Paper did what it could, which was to make the city palatable for those with some cash and leisure time. Yes, William Donald Schaefer, activists who saved Federal Hill and Fells Point from demolition and other city boosters did the dirty work on the ground. But City Paper offered residents, particularly younger ones, a place where they could see their attitudes — forward thinking, rebellious, restless — reflected back at them. Nothing like it had existed before, much less made itself available for free.
Small clubs, restaurants and shops that couldn’t afford to advertise in a daily paper could pony up a bit of skin to buy space in City Paper. As the city’s gentry began to rebuild several neighborhoods and reinvigorate others, the paper acted as a forum for ads and content that helped the scene to grow. It’s painful to remember those days when local original bands had to leave Baltimore to find stages to play on, or when the opening of a Szechuan restaurant — just one — was considered a cultural event. The paper can take some credit for expeditiously sweeping that era into the dustbin of history.
Besides its role in diversifying local commerce and giving younger generations some hope of leading richer, more entertaining lives, City Paper functioned as a viable watchdog of those in power. Though limited by its miniscule staff size, the paper reported on events that the big dailies frequently missed. Were all of those stories required reading? Of course not. But they served notice to city leaders that someone had an eye on them. Ask yourself this: Besides the paper you’re now reading, how many other sets of prying eyes are left out there?
City Paper consistently offered the region’s best arts coverage (as John Waters, among others, has duly noted) and its most daring artists and photographers. It attracted a cadre of iconoclasts, misfits and original thinkers. Some of them could even write. (They often didn’t stay long. The paper treated its writers like dirt and paid them in packing peanuts).
As both a reader of City Paper and one of its scribes, I was amazed and often shaped by what those people had to say about food, literature, music and so much else. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without them, though I can say with complete certainty that it would have been much less lively and informed.
And that brings me to the last reason why the paper was important for 40 years — one that is central to me, but may mean little to you. The paper collected overlooked geniuses and lost souls, talented people who couldn’t (at least not yet) ply a trade elsewhere, not because they were deficient, but because their roundness wouldn’t fit in a world of squares.
The paper was made by the hip and placeless, and read by those who identified more with outsiders than this city’s often imagination-less success stories.
That those people have been silenced is more than enough reason to rue City Paper’s passing.
Michael Anft (Michaelanft@verizon.net) worked as a City Paper writer during parts of the ‘80s, ‘90s and aughts.