Oh yes, they laugh.
They say mean and hurtful things about Dundalk, the heavily industrialized community located on a peninsula southeast of Baltimore.
As in: Everybody wears a black hat and carries a black gun and rides a black horse in Dundalk. Instead of trying to drive people out of town, they try to drive them in. Har-har.
For decades, Dundalk -- generally perceived as a dreary blue-collar area -- has been the subject of many an irreverent remark in Baltimore County. The ribbing took on a new intensity a year ago, however, when Brian Wilson and Don O'Brien, the morning disc jockeys at Baltimore station WBSB (B104), began a steady patter of Dundalk jokes.
"Dundalk is more or less the brunt of a lot of, uh, jokes," said Steve Kingston, the station's program director. "But let me tell you, Dundalk is a very important part of our listening audience and it's all tongue-in-cheek."
Nevertheless, the beleaguered but proud residents of Dundalk have decided to fight back. They've launched a campaign to improve their image and to bring to the forefront the real Dundalk -- the Dundalk of flowerbeds, interesting old buildings and small-town values.
"It's easy to stereotype something you know nothing about," said Patricia Winter, executive director of the Greater Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, which serves an area of about 90,000 residents. "The problem is, no one comes through here on their way to somewhere else. The major arteries either take you around Dundalk or alongside Dundalk."
The campaign is light-hearted on the surface. For example, Dundalk booster John Holechek, a Baltimore marketing executive, has set up a sort of tattletale hotline encouraging people to report every time they hear someone bad mouth Dundalk. And recently, the chamber entertained O'Brien and Wilson at an area country club; chamber members made sure that two black horses (a poke at the Dundalk desperado joke) were tethered out on the front lawn.
But the underlying purpose behind the campaign is serious. Dundalk, the site of Bethlehem Steel, General Motors and Lever Brothers, is losing jobs to technology and other forces and hopes to attract more. An appealing image is crucial.
"We don't think puns are going to hurt the economic development," Winter said recently, "but they will if people believe them."
Dundalk got its name in 1894, when industrialist William McShane named the railroad depot serving his iron foundry after his father's birthplace, Dundalk, Ireland. Decades earlier, during the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star-Spangled Banner" on a ship anchored off the shores of present-day Dundalk.
In 1918, the federal government made its first commitment to housing by developing 35 housing projects for World War I industrial workers. Two were in Maryland -- in Dundalk and nearby St. Helena. Both were built for workers of the Bethlehem Steel plant and shipyard.
The Dundalk design was an experiment for architects and planners who used the most modern elements of the time -- open parks, picturesque, tree-lined streets and a village center, although the area was never actually incorporated.
Today, that village center is a national historic district and the cornerstone of a $4-million revitalization project. It features a trio of stately red-brick structures from the World War I era, including the Dundalk Building, one of the state's earliest shopping center buildings. The Strand Theater, built in 1926 and still in operation, has a big old-fashioned marquee. The buildings front on the green lawn and shade trees of Veterans Park. There are no parking meters.
"I enjoy the historical value of Dundalk as much as Annapolis or Georgetown," said Edward C. Lambdin, 33, the community's only certified public accountant and chairman of the revitalization committee. "There will eventually be a yuppie overgrowth here, I'm afraid. We'll have gourmet stores rather than supermarkets."
The residents tend to be older and stable, living in brick homes with awnings and well-tended lawns. While a large number of them do work at blue-collar jobs, many upper-level executives also call Dundalk home.
"Most outsiders think the people here are kind of stupid," said Alice Kappel, 72, who has lived in Dundalk all her life. "They think we're not good for anything but as a bedroom of Bethlehem Steel. They completely overlook the fact that many people are high school graduates and more, that they make plenty of money which they spend on beautiful houses and beautiful cars and beautiful clothes. Their children are actually literate. And there's only one saloon in the whole area."
But getting those points across to a jeering public may be difficult. Dundalk boosters plan to stress the area's historical significance by circulating brochures and by erecting more markers. They are organizing an economic development commission and hoping to develop alternative financing to attract interested companies.
"When people find out I'm an accountant in Dundalk, they ask me, 'Well, why does Dundalk need such a thing?' " said Lambdin. "Or they ask me if they need a passport to get here. What I say depends on whether or not they pay my salary.
"Some members of the community," he said, "are not crazy about the P.R. campaign. Their feeling is, 'We don't have to defend ourselves.'
"But I have the opposite philosophy," he said. "After 33 years, I'm tired of Dundalk jokes."