On Baltimore: Narratives and City Making

All cities tell a story. But who decides what Baltimore’s next story will be?

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.”

Both situated whiteness as something good and of primary importance in their narratives of the city, and Blackness in Baltimore as criminal, deviant, and other. This laid the groundwork, Rizzo argues, for future narrative frameworks of the city. It also led to the same divide being replicated in Baltimore’s physical form, as those narrative frameworks reinforced segregation and the continued advantage, prioritization, and centering of white residents and neighborhoods over Black ones.

Transitioning to the age of urban blight and renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, then to the era of concentrated poverty and deindustrialization that came into focus in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally to the present divides of “Charm City” and “Bodymore,” Come and Be Shocked follows how the dynamic linking narratives to problematic city making was rebirthed time and again in Baltimore, recycling many of the same tropes in new fashions. These included John Waters’s rumination on the decidedly white queer liberation of blight in Female Trouble (1972); novels about alienated and angry white working-class residents reacting to Baltimore’s “renaissance” like The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Red Baker (1985); and shows about Black communities that mostly focused on crime and mounting disadvantage amid social-service cuts and dysfunctional policing, David Simon’s The Wire (2002–8) being the most famous among them. More contemporarily, Rizzo zeroes in on the image of the Baltimore Hon, a beehived white woman in cat’s-eye glasses made famous by the kitschy ways of a local diner, who to Rizzo epitomizes the latest attempt at consolidating a salable image of “Charm City” rooted in eccentric working-class whiteness despite Baltimore’s Black majority of residents.

Rizzo emphasizes that cultural narratives, and especially those of Black producers like the movie Amazing Grace (1974), by Stan Lathan, and the show Roc (1991–94), by Charles S. Dutton, have provided resistance to as much as fodder for the whitewashed, one-sided narrative of Baltimore. This point especially comes across in her chapter on the history of Chicory, a literary magazine produced by Black Baltimore residents out of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, funded by the Community Action Program of the War on Poverty, and featuring a plethora of unedited voices thinking aloud about their city and community from the 1960s to the 1980s amid urban renewal and the “Baltimore Renaissance.” (We should all thank the librarians behind the journal’s original organization for their foresight to capture this precious history on paper, and Rizzo for helping digitize this remarkable document prior to the publication of Come and Be Shocked.)

Culture and cultural narratives might not literally pour concrete or stack bricks. But, as Rizzo shows in her cultural history—narratives do matter to the cities we live in.

Still, as Come and Be Shocked progresses, it feels like Rizzo is crafting a narrative herself, one of an all-encompassing development juggernaut. In it, cultural narratives of a city operate in the service of development, against development, or to crowd out one another’s physical and cultural space, often along racial lines. All other purposes fall to naught.

For example: The Wire’s focus on crime “defin[ed] an imaginary version of the city that would, by the 2000s, be known as Bodymore.” John Waters’s Hairspray (1988) “whitewashes racist history” by “recuperating the history of Baltimore into a tourist-friendly package that promotes a sunny, eccentric image of the city” enthusiastically sold by prodevelopment mayors William Donald Schaefer (white) and Kurt Schmoke (Black). The Hon, finally, is “the basis for understanding the city,” the symbolic apex of zany white ethnic culture being marketed for the purposes of gentrification.

While I am deeply invested in Rizzo’s premise in Come and Be Shocked, I feel the need to make a case here regarding how we read cultural, urban, and development histories together. Without establishing clear lines of causation, as opposed to basing readings on coincidence (since these two things happened at the same time, they have to be related), people in this emerging interdisciplinary field run the risk of dismissal. Specifically, we risk sounding like paranoid readers whose suspicious critical eyes make it “less rather than more possible to unpack the local, contingent relations between any given piece of knowledge and its narrative/epistemological consequences,” as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written.3

Rizzo offers the disclaimer that she’s “a cultural historian, not a policy analyst.” But in the type of argument that connects cultural narratives to the physical transformation of cities—and for which Come and Be Shocked seeks to establish a framework—these fields cannot be held apart, especially if the goal is to successfully engage urban planners and policy makers.

When analyzing the cinematography of The Baltimore Plan (1953), for instance, Rizzo clearly draws a line from methods of cultural production to methods of exclusionary development. By “visualiz[ing] the inhumane conditions of life in impoverished Baltimore as part of a narrative of urban redemption,” the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Association’s production of The Baltimore Plan justified mass clearances and displacement of Black and poor residents through mid-century urban renewal, to the joy of the National Home Builders Association and the National Association of Real Estate Boards, who cosponsored the film. This moment fulfills Come and Be Shocked’s argumentative aspirations and opens up an intervention across multiple fields and disciplines that makes it, to my mind, one of the strongest readings in the book.


Crossing the Line in Baltimore

By Stephen J. Campbell

However, segregation preceded The Wire, as did the idea of “Bodymore.” And the use of imaginative language to describe a very real violent crime problem that arises from systemically induced, concentrated poverty does not imagine those issues into existence. It puts them at the center of discourse rather than shoving them under the rug, cleaning them up through politics of representation, or defaulting their handling to law-and-order police intervention—all practices critiqued by The Wire. (Conversely, the Washington Bullets changed their names to the Washington Wizards in the 1990s to make it seem like DC didn’t have a violent crime problem; it still had a violent crime problem afterward.)

The insertion of the Baltimore Hon also feels a bit arbitrary, something chosen to prove a point rather than to expand the analysis. While I find the diner owner behind the Hon obnoxious (she attempted to trademark the symbol even as she attempted to foist it onto the city), I’m not sure how we might claim that the Hon looms over Baltimore as some potential monolithically dominant icon. I’d be more convinced if Rizzo had unearthed an unsavory history of Mr. Boh, the winking symbol of Natural Bohemian beer so omnipresent on windows, bumpers, signs, shirts, tattoos, and murals in Baltimore that if he wasn’t smiling I’d probably become a little paranoid myself when wandering about on (formerly) routine visits to town.

I’d also perhaps be more concerned about how and to whom the city was being sold—an issue present within Rizzo’s discussion of the Hon—if Baltimore’s most pressing problem was gentrification, which, right now at least, it isn’t. As Alan Mallach wrote in a lengthy report issued earlier this year, when it comes to “the larger picture of neighborhood change” in Baltimore, “gentrification is one part of that picture—a significant part, but one that only affects a small minority of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.”4

As has been the case for most of the last half-century, Baltimore’s premier concern remains increasingly concentrated disadvantage and the continued, decades-long loss of people, resources, money, and jobs to surrounding whiter and wealthier counties despite small areas of speculative investment.5 To confuse the issue further, gentrification in Baltimore has mostly occurred in neighborhoods with already disproportionate numbers of white, college-educated, and middle-income people, making it hard to isolate cultural narratives from the preexistent socio-spatial advantages that have attracted new arrivals to those neighborhoods—advantages that, without question, must be better redistributed or extended throughout the city to create a more equal Baltimore.

Culture might help us to imagine and be charmed by a more just, altered form of city making yet unrealized.

Finally, Waters and anyone else creatively approaching representations of cities in general are allowed to reimagine and project cross-racial coalitions that haven’t happened yet. They can do so because movies, ultimately, are fiction. And more importantly, they can do so because creative texts can posit future possibilities of city spaces as much as they reassemble cities’ past and present, though we might productively disagree about those texts’ methods and presentation.

How, for instance, might we look to Waters’s queering of working-class history as a rupture for future coalition building? (Double entendre intended.) How, for instance, might we work with the fact that a widespread embrace of the character of Omar from The Wire comes from at least some level of understanding that justice does not always apply to Blackness under current standards of policing and criminal law? How do we take Chicory and build the types of community renewal those chronically underserved citizens envisioned? How do we listen to the country ballad of a Southerner moving to the city to find a factory job, only to find his desires frustrated and the American dream moving past him in “The Streets of Baltimore” (1966), alongside Nina Simone’s frustrated and clipped quip that “ain’t nowhere to run to / there ain’t nothing here for free,” in her calypso-inspired remake of “Baltimore” (1978), knowing that they inhabit a similar feeling within starkly segregated spaces?

These questions do not have to exist exclusive of one another and in fact ought to be viewed together. This way, they can draw a more comprehensive picture of Baltimore while inspiring the creation of a new, better, more equal urban form of the city. Ideally, it’s a picture that celebrates and promotes unity amid difference by being carefully attentive to how dynamics of race and class influence the various narratives of Baltimore, and corrects for those narratives’ contrastingly expressive powers when it comes to their influence on past and future developments.

In the service of those aims, I agree unconditionally with Rizzo’s concluding prescriptions for what needs to be done in regard to the culture side of the culture-development nexus (reservations about how we might connect the methods of cultural production to the tools and results of development aside). With “resurgent investment in arts at the grassroots level,” a more diverse range of city representations would undo the reduction of people and places to single narratives that symbolically perpetuate segregation and mask exclusionary development.

Such an intervention would also bring out more of the stories from “beyond” that I had expected, given the prepositional crux of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore beyond John Waters and “The Wire”’s full title. These include the stories of the many Black women activists who successfully connected campaigns for civil rights to those for welfare rights amid their struggles for quality housing; the singular ground-leasing system that gave rise to Baltimore’s signature row houses and at one point made the city a national exemplar for quality affordable housing; the Black neighborhood where W. E. B. Du Bois lived, which successfully created covenants to keep white people out and escaped redlining; and the spatially and temporally shifting cultural zeitgeist that allowed Thurgood Marshall to win the Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which struck down racially restrictive covenants, with support from US Solicitor General Philip Perlman—who only two decades prior was part of the Mayor’s Committee on Segregation in Baltimore and stood opposite a nearly identical court case against such covenants, Meade v. Dennistone (1938), that Marshall was involved in and could not get past the Maryland Court of Appeals.6


Jamie Hector of “The Wire” on Acting and...

By Liz Maynes-Aminzade

It’s a shame that Waters and Simon failed to successfully incorporate these stories into their shows and movies. It would also be preferable that they and other white people weren’t the exclusive voices we had to rely on to lift these stories up and place them within the current narrative of Baltimore. Funding other, more diverse voices through local arts initiatives, as Rizzo recommends, could well have the power to shift that dynamic. Indeed, it could empower greater community participation in the future design, planning, and development of Baltimore neighborhoods by giving residents better tools and expanded resources for intervention while amplifying their voices to more audible levels.

Such a paradigm shift might be a shock, given currently accepted methods for community-friendly development like tepid local “input” and toothless benefits agreements. Culture, however, might help us to imagine and be charmed by a more just, altered form of city making yet unrealized. I’d be thrilled to see Baltimore resume its position as a national leader in urban development along that front. Come and Be Shocked gives us some of the initial tools for realizing that goal.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonickicon

  1. Marian Burros, “An Excursion to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor,” New York Times, August 14, 1983.
  2. Marc Levine, “Downtown Redevelopment as an Urban Growth Strategy: A Critical Appraisal of the Baltimore Renaissance,” Journal of Urban Affairs, vol. 9, no. 2 (1987); Marc Levine, “‘A Third World City in the First World’: Social Exclusion, Racial Inequality, and Sustainable Development in Baltimore,” in The Social Sustainability of Cities: Diversity and the Management of Change, edited by Mario Polèse and Richard Stren (University of Toronto Press).
  3. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You,” in Touching Feeling, Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Duke University Press, 2003), p. 124.
  4. Alan Mallach, “Drilling Down in Baltimore’s Neighborhoods: Changes in Racial/Ethnic Composition and Income from 2000 to 2017,” Abell Report, vol. 33, no. 3 (2020), p. 2.
  5. James R. Cohen, “Abandoned Housing: Exploring Lessons from Baltimore,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 12, no. 3 (2001); Alison Knezevich, “Baltimore Population Drops Below 600,000, the Lowest Total in a Century, Census Estimates Show,” Baltimore Sun, March 26, 2020; Levine, “Third World City”; David Rusk, Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Sean Zielenbach, “Community Development in Central West Baltimore: An Analysis of Opportunities and Limitations,” Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law, vol. 17, no. 4 (2008).
  6. On Black female activism in Baltimore, see Rhonda Y. Williams, The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality (Oxford University Press, 2004). On ground leases, see Edward A. Corma, “‘Business Is Business’: Ground Rents and Ejectments in Baltimore,” Rutgers University Law Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (2017); and Frank A. Kaufman, “The Maryland Ground Rent—Mysterious but Beneficial,” Maryland Law Review, vol. 5, no. 1 (1940). On Du Bois and Baltimore, see Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Ivan R. Dee, 2010), p. 72. On Meade v. Dennistone (1938), see Garrett Power, “Meade v. Dennistone: The NAACP’s Test Case to ‘… Sue Jim Crow Out of Maryland with the Fourteenth Amendment,’” Maryland Law Review, no. 773 (2004).
Featured image: Mr. Boh Up Close (2014). Photograph by Elliott Plack / Flickr