The Metropole Bookshelf: Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and the Wire

The Metropole Bookshelf is an opportunity for authors of forthcoming or recently published books to let the UHA community know about their new work in the field.

By Mary Rizzo

The first time I heard someone talk about Baltimore as a tourist destination was in New Jersey in the mid-1990s. My college roommate excitedly described Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Harborplace mall as a fun daytrip, one she and her boyfriend might take. Even though she grew up in Paramus, NJ, located smack dab in the valley of malls, a trip to a different mall in a near-enough city was exciting. The familiar thrill of shopping eased the unfamiliarity of a strange city.

Flash forward twenty years to me writing a book that was, in part, about how Baltimore came to be a place that might convince a couple of twenty-year-olds to get on I-95 south and spend a few dollars on a weekend getaway. As scholars like Sharon Zukin and Miriam Greenberg have brilliantly argued, urban branding was a key part of that process. Since the 1970s, Rust Belt cities like Baltimore responded to the gut punch of deindustrialization by crafting a careful marketing image that sold the city to tourists, corporations, and upwardly mobile residents. But real estate developers, policymakers, tourism agencies, and civic elites were only part of the story. In the case of Baltimore, I saw another factor at work, which became the genesis of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire. How had artists and cultural producers represented the city in popular culture?

For a city of its size, Baltimore has been the setting for and subject of an extraordinary number of cultural representations in film, television, novels, drama, poetry, and music since the 1950s. Surprisingly, though, Baltimore’s impact on culture has been mostly ignored by scholars even though the city, through figures like John Waters, Anne Tyler, Barry Levinson, Laura Lippman and David Simon, has become nationally recognizable. These representations have affected not only Baltimore but how we understand broader issues like urban governance (Simon), queerness (Waters), and race and ethnicity (Levinson and Simon). Several universities, including Rutgers University-Newark where I teach, have offered courses on The Wire (2002-2008), an HBO drama about Baltimore’s drug trade and urban governance, as a window into deindustrialization, the criminal justice system, and education. Representations of Baltimore shape how we think about cities everywhere. Come and Be Shocked contextualizes these cultural representations within the history of urban renewal, urban crisis, and tourism and branding.

My focus in the book is the relationship between cultural representation and municipal and federal policy. Two major questions guided my research and analysis. How do the imaginary cities created by artists affect the real cities that we live in? How does public policy shape (intentionally or not), the kinds of cultural representations that artists create? Examining the political economy of cultural representation allowed me to move beyond just textual analysis to understand the role of image-making in the postwar city through a case study of a fascinating city that has been underexamined.[1]

John Waters in his home. Michael Geissinger, 1994, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

My baseline assumption was that culture is important to a city’s history and development. While I drew from cultural studies in my analysis of texts and their circulation, I wanted to see if I could find more specific links between culture and policy. Books like Benjamin Looker’s A Nation of Neighborhoods: Imagining Cities, Communities and Democracy in Postwar America, and Carlo Rotella’s October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature, provided the tools for this approach. I tried to examine cultural representations historically, understanding how they reflected or critiqued what was happening in Baltimore at the time of their creation. That led me to contextualize John Waters’s early films not as pioneering queer cinema—though they are—but in their relationship to urban renewal and neighborhood conservation. In digging through archives from Baltimore to Boston, I found fascinating sources. In Temple University’s Urban Archive, I scoured city pamphlets supporting urban renewal and neighborhood conservation. On the Internet Archive, an educational film called The Baltimore Plan used images of rats, dirty alleys, and outdoor toilets just like the pamphlets to make the case for redevelopment. Interestingly, Waters repeated similar images in his early films, suggesting to me that an obsession with urban decay connected the filmmaker with the urban reformers, even if the former pushed for what I call “urban filthification,” rather than renewal. Archival research and political history grounded the textual analysis.

Baltimore club music DJ Miss Tony is memorialized in this mural, which includes two of his most famous lines. While remembered locally and within club music circles, Tony, and club music, were never embraced by the city as part of its cultural heritage. Courtesy of Sorta via The Baltimore Sun.

But as even that cursory list of popular culture texts suggests, white people seemed to have a monopoly on representing Baltimore, despite the decades long demographic majority of African American . Of course, this is not true. Some of my most rewarding research experiences were uncovering forgotten texts by people of color. Chicory magazine, a poetry magazine published with War on Poverty funds by the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the library system of Baltimore, was one of these finds.

Again, policy and culture intersected. The liberal reformers fighting the War on Poverty, including city officials and library administrators, expressed concern regarding inner city Baltimore. While these neighborhoods had been damaged by disinvestment and urban renewal, these officials believed that human renewal was the solution to poverty. They hoped that poor people of color would use art and creative expression rather than Molotov cocktails to make their opinions known. The writers and editors of Chicory, including founding editor and former poet laureate of Boston, Sam Cornish; longest-serving editor, poet and educator, Melvin Brown; and, last editor, poet and educator Everett Adam Jackson, had other ideas. They drew from the Black Arts Movement to create a magazine that gave a mostly unedited voice to working-class Black people. These regular folks used the magazine’s pages to debate civil rights and Black nationalism; promote Afrocentrism; critique local, national, and international leaders; and, frequently, write about their lives and neighborhoods in their own words. In this way, Chicory was an extraordinary historical source that captured a tumultuous time period from the point of view of people often ignored in the historical record. Recognizing this historical significance, Pratt library digitized Chicory as part of the Maryland digital repository, with funding and support from Rutgers University-Newark and me.[2]

While acts of recovery are important, a cultural studies lens encourages us to also ask questions about why certain texts are famous and others are forgotten. My last chapter, for example, looks at one of Black Baltimore’s most unique cultural inventions, Baltimore club music. Played by and for Black people in the city starting in the 1990s, producers and DJs from outside Baltimore caught on to its raucous energy in the early 2000s. Within a global circuit of fans, Baltimore club had cultural capital, but for the city leaders it was too raunchy, raw and, yes, Black, to serve as branding for the city despite being truly a Baltimore creation. Instead, I show how a different image came to the fore in the early 2000s. The Baltimore Hon, a stereotype of a gum-snapping, beehive-hairdo-wearing, sassy white working-class woman of the 1960s, became one powerful image of the city spread through an annual heritage festival and articles in the travel and tourism pages of publications from the New York Times to The Guardian.

Screen shot from The Wire.

As Baltimore native sons Ta-Nehisi Coates and D. Watkins have also argued, racial segregation created two Baltimores. Cultural representations of Baltimore reflect this segregated reality and at times, have even justified it. The 1960s Baltimore teen dance TV show, The Buddy Deane Show, was cancelled rather than integrate, a very different ending than the one John Waters gave in his rewriting of this history in the movie Hairspray, which has enjoyed a renewed life as both  a popular stage musical and movie-musical. Hairspray’s various iterations spread an image of 1960s Baltimore as more tolerant than in reality.

While I’m critical of The Wire’s depiction of Baltimore as Bodymore, a place primarily defined by death and despair for black people, police detective Lester Freamon’s phrase, “All the pieces matter,” is as good of description of scholarly writing about cities as any I’ve read. When urban historians read this book, I hope that they’ll consider culture as one of those pieces. Culture is not a separate sphere from politics and economics, it is deeply connected to it as a force that shapes cities everywhere, including those like Baltimore.

Mary Rizzo is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark. Her work is in American cultural history, urban studies, public history, and digital humanities. Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and The Wire (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020) examines the battle between artists’ representations of Baltimore and municipal interest in controlling those images. Her work has appeared in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a US City, edited by P. Nicole King, Joshua Clark Davis and Kate Drabinski (Rutgers University Press, 2019). She leads the Chicory Revitalization Project, a public and digital humanities project that digitized Chicory and uses the magazine to spur civic conversations on place and social justice. She tweets @rizzo_pubhist.

Featured image (at top): Hons: The Baltimore Hon, a 1960s-era, white, working-class woman with a sassy attitude, has become one dominant image of the city since the late 1990s. Photograph by Mary Rizzo.

[1] New work on Baltimore suggests that it will not remain underexamined. See, for example, Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, edited by P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, and Joshua Clark Davis (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

[2] I also lead the Chicory Revitalization Project, which uses Chicory to spur conversations about place and social justice. Follow us on Instagram (@Chicory_Baltimore) where we contextualize poems from the past and report on our work with communities in Baltimore today.

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