Oh Baltimore

I’m back in Baltimore for the coming month (with stops in D.C. and New York) and am damn near thrilled to have my feet planted on the East Coast. In my 2-plus years as a San Francisco resident, I have made my share of deprecating remarks about the West Coast, many of which reify the stereotypes so often applied to California and San Francisco in particular: There are small hand-scrawled signs lurking near napkin dispensers in most cafes and coffee shops reminding patrons that paper products do, in fact, come from trees and should therefore be conserved accordingly. Paper comes from trees? Thanks! And the driving. Ah, the driving. “Lay off the hash pipe and drive!” I snarl at will while zipping about the city on my Vespa scooter (a cliche right there!). Aren’t I so clever now?

My sardonic quips are oft mistaken, and at times I must talk folks down following said remarks: “No, really, I do care about the environment. No, really, I don’t believe that all residents of the West Coast lack a sense of humor. No, really, I don’t believe that my kids will turn out to be illiterate if I surrender them to the California public school system. Yes, I am aware of the sweeping generalizations that I make—I use them intentionally sometimes. It was a joke. Sorry. I tend to deliver on the dry side…” I felt like a real miscreant during my first year here, a true reprobate. An all-out asshole.


What else to do then but develop some sort of defense mechanism (albeit a ph7.jpgthinly veiled one) in the form of a constant, nearly compulsive declaration of love for the East Coast? I suspect—no, I’m quite certain—that many I’ve met and befriended in San Francisco believe that I wholeheartedly despise California. On the contrary, I like it quite a bit. I even love it at times, secretly. So to those who have entertained my mouth for the past two years—thanks, graduate cohort—know this: I’m just homesick, that’s all.

San Francisco is a pretty transient city, and new acquaintances often inquire of one another: “Where are you from?” followed by “So, how long have you been here?” The general follow-up: “So, how do you like it?” The ensuing conversation may revolve around politics or the weather, real estate and rent. Graduate school, professional pursuits, partners. People? I pause for a moment before addressing that one, sizing up my conversant. “Can this person entertain the humor question with, well, humor?” I ask myself.

Still, I often have difficulty articulating myself clearly when folks ask me how I feel about San Francisco. Obviously, I have painted the city and its people in broad strokes. And whether I care to fully accept it or not, I, too, am (at present) one of San Francisco’s own.

But at the moment, I am slowly reacquainting myself with Baltimore. The two thousand miles between here and there must be enough; as I slapped down $5.25 for 3 Natty Bohs on my first night here, I experienced a moment of great clarity. I now know precisely what it is that bothers me about San Francisco.

Baltimore has its share of serious problems: drugs and violence, high unemployment rates, homelessness and poverty, decreased public housing due to the spillover from the District. Et cetera, et cetera. Similar to my home turf of Pittsburgh, Baltimore also has a healthy sense of pride that reveals itself in the form of self-deprecation. When one’s chips are perpetually down, one can choose to laugh, or one can choose to cry. Baltimore knows this: Charm City and Mobtown are its chosen monikers, after all.

murderink.gifThe murder rate here is appallingly high: 151 (up from last week’s 143) since January 1, 2007, according to Murder Ink, the weekly body count compiled by Anna Ditkoff and printed in the City Paper, where an accompanying Google map pinpoints each crime scene. Other independently published blogs also work diligently to track crime rates; Baltimore Crime is one particularly vigilant example. In terms of television, Homicide (R.I.P.) and The Wire put a face on the city for a nationwide audience. It could be argued that these efforts simply glorify crime, providing fodder for suburban voyeurism and blueprints for would-be perpetrators; The Wire, for instance, has incited criticism for its limited depiction of the city as a drug-riddled no man’s land. Ultimately though, these forums make crime visible, thus demanding that it be faced and dealt with by a city government that frequently falls down on the job.

nationalbohemiancoaster.gifBaltimore has no shame in its game, and brands itself accordingly: John Waters and his particular kind of camp enjoy a special sort of cult following here; several of my former MICA profs have performed in his films, and folks are chomping at the bit for the upcoming re-release of Hairspray. The so-called “White Trash” aesthetic is embraced here (see Hamden, Hon). In fact, the term was coined in Baltimore, and though for distinctly different reasons, the “White Tee” trend originated around these parts, too. Homegrown snow ball businesses pop up all over the city as the summer swells. The Charm City Roller Girls and the Charm City Craft Mafia are alive and strong, as is the local Kickball League. National Bohemian is beloved local beer whose price seems to be permanently fixed at $1.50 a bottle and $1 a can. The Natty Boh mascot, Mr. Boh, is the face of the city (and a central part of its new “master plan” according to John Barry’s article in this week’s City Paper).

Even said city officials have taken an advertising-based approach, launching an anti-drug campaign under the slogan “BELIEVE.” Stamped in bold white text across a black background, the word adorns billboards and bumper stickers alike. The city jail waves a massive banner at all who drive along Interstate 83. It threatens: “Drop the Gun or Choose a Room.” If it takes a logo, a catchphrase, or a television show to bring these issues to the fore—and to celebrate the good stuff, too—then I believe that those tactics deserve some consideration, even if their effectiveness may be questionable.

“Baltimore: BELIEVE and CHANGE” by Bill Angel; image courtesy the artist

The message Baltimore delivers is a wry one, and yet it beams with hope: “This place is kind of fucked,” it proclaims, “but we’re going to make the best of it on our own terms. And we’re gonna mock it all along the way.” Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow…

San Francisco boasts a distinctly oppositional message: “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will surely prosper just as we did today, yesterday, and the day before that.” Don’t get me wrong—the city experiences its share of social ills. A bullet is a bullet regardless of where it’s fired. The homeless are homeless on any street.

I’m sorry to admit, however, that these problems remain marginalized within the city both geographically and visually. Unlike Baltimore, where a $300K row house may butt up against a boarded-up shooting gallery, one may easily traverse San Francisco while avoiding the outward signs of severe poverty. civic-map1.gifOne may elect not to merge on to the 101 via Cesar Chavez, where day laborers crowd along the curb each morning signaling for work, not taxis. One may enter the financial district or Union Square via a host of different routes, thus bypassing the Tenderloin altogether. Some public housing complexes are camouflaged to resemble Candy Land, and though these adobe cottages and brightly colored low-rises beat the blighted brick panopticons endemic to East Coast cities, a cheerful exterior can only mask so much. There are no highly visible, city sponsored anti-poverty or crime campaigns in the city.

San Francisco has plenty of problems and it shelters plenty of citizens who work tirelessly to address them, along with nearly every other issue plaguing our world. Historically, the city has stood as a social and political Mecca, and I am proud to live in place that has served as a refuge for so many. Yet I have never seen an ounce of self-effacement in San Francisco’s public portrayal of itself (save the extracurricular activities of Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, natch). According to San Francisco, San Francisco is just that: a holy land. We will never see an HBO series based on its blights.

When it comes to humor, shades of grey fade along the spectrum between black and white. One may passionately oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq and still poke fun at the hipsters cruising so righteously through the Mission on their Schwinn roadsters (or Vespas, for that matter) while sporting recycled plastic license plates bearing the slogan “No Blood for Oil.” One may participate in an anti-Gitmo demonstration outside of Diane Feinstein’s office while sniggering at the young kid whose display of devotion—the requisite bandana tied over the mouth, bandit style—is moot given the rain…and the ten or so other protesters present. One may throw a jab or two at a raw food restaurant called Café Gratitude, even if one patronizes the joint (as I sometimes do). To do so is to acknowledge the very irony of its mission and to recognize one’s own position therein: Human kindness is a cause worth preaching about, as are healthy dietary habits. Yet only the choir can afford the plate.

To laugh at oneself—and one another—is to acknowledge and even alleviate life’s absurdities, horrible and depressing though they may be. Just yesterday, in fact, I felt a bit of guilt as I dumped some vegetable scraps into the garbage can. Stunningly enough, Baltimore doesn’t have a composting program. What kind of a city demonstrates such blatant disregard for the environment, anyway? We recycle everything in San Francisco.

1 July: See, when a city can’t laugh at itself, the joke is left for others to make. A dear reader just reminded me of “Smug Alert,” the South Park episode commenting on the sense of moral superiority that hybrid cars seem to engender in those who drive them. (See here for the lead-in to the scene above, in which the residents of South Park congratulate one another for driving hybrids during a collective sing along to Stan’s inspirational ballad “Hey People, You Gotta Drive Hybrids Already.” Spot on.)


1 Comment

Filed under Built Environment, Places, Urbanism, Visual Culture

One response to “Oh Baltimore

  1. gsg717

    Much truth you speak, but I must take exception to one characterization: Hash pipes are in fact comparatively rare in SF, for reasons that should be obvious.

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