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On Baltimore: Narratives and City Making

Baltimore had a heyday. Or at least it told a story of one in the 1980s, when the entire country fell agog at its creation of Inner Harbor. The waterfront development of shops and attractions made Baltimore a star and attracted tourists by the millions, garnering a major feature from the New York Times on the city’s “newfound charm.”1 It also inspired cities across the country to turn downtowns into Disneylands to copy its championed revitalization. In New York, Times Square went from porno theaters to Toys “R” Us and Madame Tussauds; in Chicago, Navy Pier went from an area where residents occasionally gathered on the water to a shimmering port of call for tourists, now perhaps the least likely location you’ll spot an actual Chicagoan enjoying the lakefront.

Baltimore’s self-promoted tale of an “urban renaissance” successfully leveraged culture and branding alongside physical development strategies to create the form and image of Inner Harbor, making that synergy a major component for the template of urban transformation it provided from the 1980s onward. This occurred despite the idea of Baltimore’s “renaissance” being contentious from the outset, in claims drowned out by that narrative’s strength and fervor. As the harbor kept being lauded for its promises for the future, Baltimore’s many predominantly Black neighborhoods continued to lose jobs, resources, and upkept homes. Meanwhile, an ongoing drain of wealth and population, along with federal, state, and municipal cuts in social services, made Baltimore a high-poverty city in the middle of the richest state per capita in the nation.2

In Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore beyond John Waters and “The Wire”, Mary Rizzo therefore urges us to turn to the city of Baltimore and its narrative history from before, during, and after the creation of Inner Harbor. We must do so, argues Rizzo, in order to understand how culture and cultural narratives shape cities, and to call attention to the pernicious problems that can result when their influence on policies and practices of urban development goes unaddressed.

Culture and cultural narratives might not literally pour concrete or stack bricks. But, as Rizzo shows in her cultural history—which traces Baltimore’s ongoing tale(s) of two cities, split largely between Black and white (or what Rizzo sketches as the contemporary narratives of “Charm City,” a place of cozily campy working-class whiteness, and “Bodymore, Murdaland,” a place that equates the city’s Blackness with an alternately alluring or repulsive aura of danger)—narratives do matter to the cities we live in.

Narratives provide a strategy for assembling, packaging, and reshaping the urban past, in the present, to provide the foundation for future development. They draw lines of inclusion and exclusion, and allow people to sift through cities’ incredible scale and density to make meaning of places only loosely comprehensible otherwise, to sculpt an “image” of the city both physical and cultural.

The narrative history of Baltimore captured in Come and Be Shocked begins in the mid-20th-century moment of blight, blockbusting, and attempted integration. This was the time when television shows like The Buddy Deane Show (1957–64), a local teenage dance program, and novels like William Manchester’s The City of Anger (1953) staged battles over urban representation that paralleled battles over the ownership of city streets and neighborhoods. The Buddy Deane Show held dancing white teenagers up as model symbols of Baltimore’s rising youth and refused to integrate the show’s dances beyond a monthly, all-Black “Special Guest Day,” for fear of diluting its “fantasy Baltimore that erased Black people.” The City of Anger, on the other hand, undercut even its own well-intentioned critique of how blockbusting stoked both sides of rising racial resentments (it exploited Blacks by overcharging them for homes, and whites by deliberately stoking panic that led to below-market home values) in the way it “center[ed] white innocence and spectaculariz[ed] Black violence.”

Read entire article at Public Books