Baltimore, good old Balmer, has been discovered by the pace-setters of New York. No doubt this comes as marvelous news to the men and women charged with Putting Baltimore on the Map, but to this resident of that city it is cause for horror and alarm. Bar the gates! Close the Harbor Tunnel! The trendies are coming!
Specifically, Baltimore has been accorded the blessings of New York magazine, the weekly guide to the Ins and Outs of life in the exposed-brick-and-ferns lane. From its perch in Manhattan, the magazine has looked south to Baltimore and has pronounced it not merely a "Weekend Adventure" but also--hold your hat, Mayor Schaefer!--a "Highbrow Haven." Golly. On the very cover of the magazine--a position passionately sought after by directors of tourism and promotion from East Hampton to Cape May--a young man and woman of quite impossible beauty and sophistication are posed in front of one of the pavilions of Baltimore's very own Harborplace. Inside, the breathless announcement is made:
"If the last time you saw Baltimore was 15 years ago when you took a wrong turn, come back--it's changed. Beautiful old neighborhoods are blooming again; there's a spiffy new harborside where the old one was, and right now Maryland crab's in season. And if you want culture--Fauvist paintings, lavish opera costumes, great jazz, poetry readings, and jewelry from ancient tombs and shrines--this is the place."
Thus launched, the article gushes away. On the Baltimore Museum of Art's Cone Collection: "Wandering past these paintings, alive with joyous and delicious color, you'll feel as if you were drinking honey in the sun." On Lexington Market: "It's gently worn and a little seedy, but the food's marvelous." On the Walters Art Gallery: "In the Greek and Roman Gallery, the Olbia Treasure, from a Hellenistic burial mound discovered in the Crimea, includes necklaces and bracelets so sophisticated and urbane you mistake them for Art Deco."
Ah, New York! Only a Manhattan mind could confront the glories of ancient Greece and find them worthy of comparison with Art Deco; thus, in certain quarters, are sophistication and urbanity defined. Perhaps it comes from drinking too much honey in the sun.
Perhaps, too, it will be good for Baltimore, this endorsement by the apostles of chic. People who read New York magazine have lots of money to spend, and heaven only knows poor old Reaganized Baltimore could use some of it. Is there trickledown from Harborplace to Pigtown, from the National Aquarium to Dundalk, from the Walters to Govans? If there is, then come on down, you glittering Manhattanites with your fat wallets and your insatiable appetites for whatever is new and with-it and now.
Even better, send your money and stay at home. In recent years Baltimore has gotten with-it enough on its own, thank you, without much help from visiting firepersons from Regine's and the Lone Star Cafe; an invasion by these folks could cause terminal trendiness, and that is the last thing Baltimore needs.
It must be conceded, though, that the city fathers and mothers in their wisdom appear to disagree with this. Like so many older cities desperately trying to shape places for themselves in an America of suburbs and Sunbelts, Baltimore has turned for relief to tourism. It's no longer a city, but a theme park. In the wink of an eye, the grubby old port has become the Inner Harbor--Disney World for the "sophisticated and urbane." Where not so many years ago banana boats docked and sailors brawled, the visitor now finds a sanitized version of The Urban Experience, at prices geared to suburbanites and Gothamites but quite beyond the reach of most residents of the city itself. We're talking trickledown again, folks.
Don't get me wrong. I like Harborplace and the Aquarium and the Museum of Art and Obrycki's and Marconi's and most of the other places that New York magazine recommends to its readers. I like what the downtown renaissance is doing for Baltimore's cityscape, its sense of itself, its economy. But not for a moment do I like being the latest stop on the Andy Warhol Express. Nor do I like seeing Baltimore depicted, for purposes of tourism, as a city it in point of fact is not.
This latter subject was addressed in a recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review by a former resident of Baltimore who has been reading its press notices of late and finding them remarkably similar in tone. Journalist after journalist has wandered into the city--or been lured there by its aggressive promotion and public-relations office--and has returned to spout what amounts to a company line: the dynamic Inner Harbor, the charming old rehabbed rowhouses, the forward-looking city government, blah blah blah. Usually a token nod is made in the direction of the city's deep and intractable difficulties, many of which are rooted in painful questions of race and class, but it is only a nod; the story is gentrification and the story is upbeat.
I know whereof I speak because I have been guilty of such eleemosynary excesses and distortions myself. In an article I wrote a couple of years ago for a national magazine, I recited the company line from A to Z, all the while quite unaware that I was doing so. My deep affection for the city encouraged me to promote a view of it that, though far from untrue, is a distortion of reality. Baltimore is not Harborplace and it is not (the words are my own) "urban homesteading and similar programs designed to rescue huge stretches of historic red-brick town houses."
The point is that a city as large and diverse as Baltimore is many cities, few of which are seen by the visiting journalist or tourist. The place called "Baltimore" that is described in the pages of New York magazine does indeed exist, but it is not Baltimore. People who come to the city and take the guided tour prescribed by New York magazine cannot be said, except in the most literal sense, to have seen Baltimore. They have seen what the tourism department and the promotion department want them to see, which is quite another kettle of crabs altogether.
Among other things they have seen a great deal of something they like very much: exposed brick. Not only in restaurants but on residential streets, where on rowhouse after rowhouse a hideous artificial facing called formstone is being stripped away to expose the original brick underneath. This is, no doubt about it, a Good Thing, enhancing as it does the city's appeal to gentrifiers and affluent tourists. When all the formstone has been stripped away, Baltimore will look just like an expanded Colonial Williamsburg, which will make for one splendiferous weekend adventure.
The only problem is that if original brick is Baltimore, so too is formstone. The stuff may be as ugly as sin, but it was invented in Baltimore and, as it crept through the city from block to block, it became as much a part of the city's identity as white marble steps, crabcakes and H.L. Mencken. A Baltimore without formstone may be an esthetically superior Baltimore, and one vastly more alluring to ladies and gentlemen out on a spree, but will it be Baltimore? Will it have a history? Will there be any there there?
Or, to put it another way: If New York magazine comes, can People magazine be far behind?