Baltimore’s Shifting Cultural Terrain–A Review of Come and Be Shocked

Rizzo, Mary. Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore beyond John Waters and the Wire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Daniel Cumming

It was the “Prince of Puke”—also known as director John Waters—who pitched the idea to Baltimore’s Chamber of Commerce in the early 2000s. With aplomb only befitting such royalty, Waters urged civic leaders to embrace a new advertising slogan: “Come to Baltimore and Be Shocked.” Unsurprisingly, the Chamber rejected the proposal. The scene, which Mary Rizzo recounts in her excellent new book, Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore beyond the John Waters and the Wire, illustrates an important point about urban development in the postindustrial era. As manufacturing declined, culture sold cities.

Come and Be Shocked is a fascinating history of shifting cultural terrain in relation to economic dislocation over the late-twentieth century. Tracing deindustrialization through selected texts, Rizzo examines Baltimoreans’ complicated relationships to a city transformed, including activists’ desegregation of The Buddy Deane Show, Water’s “filthification” of urban renewal, officials’ “Renaissance” of the Inner Harbor, and, famously, David Simon’s multilayered autopsy in The Wire. In two parts, “Renewal and Renaissance” and “Good Mo(u)rning Baltimore,” Rizzo examines official and unofficial narratives crafted by novelists, filmmakers, musicians, residents, politicians, businessmen, and planners. Delving into rich archives, she illustrates how municipal agencies employed arts and culture in competition with other cities for investment. Once culture became policy, “image and infrastructure worked in tandem.”

A cultural historian, Rizzo intervenes in studies of culture separated from histories of place. Examining redlining, renewal, and revitalization, she examines the “political economy of culture” that emerged from postwar transformations in race, space, and capital. As white residents fled to the suburbs, officials invested in a commercial waterfront to the exclusion of its increasingly Black neighborhoods. Cleaved by race and class, Baltimore’s Tale-of-Two-Cities motif became common fare. Today, Baltimore is both Charm City, home of “the Hon,” an eccentric and feminized construction of ethnic white working-class nostalgia, and Bodymore, Murdaland, haunt of The Wire’s shotgun-toting Omar, a poor, dangerous, and deeply alienated portrayal of the city’s heralded African American past.

A woman wearing the classic beehive hairdo at Baltimore’s 2018 HonFest. Bruce Emmerling, “A Woman at the HonFest” 2018, Wikimedia Commons.

The 1970s are key to this turn. Under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, a film commission spun Baltimore into “Hollywood East,” the promotional office advertised Charm City, USA, and public-private partnerships completed the Inner Harbor, “the dream of a tourism-centered neoliberal Baltimore.” Investment flowed through Schaefer’s cultural agencies, revealing “the rise of urban neoliberalism from a new angle.” No doubt the iconic mayor, and later governor, wielded immense political power. Still, Rizzo limits her engagement with neoliberalism, declaring that “by the 1980s, Shaefer perfected a formula to renovate downtown Baltimore for the new economic moment.” Theorist David Harvey and sociologist Sharon Zukin are referenced frequently, though urban historians have since expanded neoliberalism’s conceptual boundaries. Moreover, public-private partnerships reached well beyond Rizzo’s focus on the Inner Harbor, including recent PILOT and TIF programs, Enterprise and Empowerment Zones, and multi-billion dollar handouts to developers. Even Stringer Bell’s corrupt deals with Senator Clay Davis in The Wire involved a federal block grant to launder drug money through luxury condominiums in West Baltimore.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a vantage point of the city that inspired David Harvey’s “A View from Federal Hill.” Dave Hosford, “Downtown Baltimore” 2010, Wikimedia Commons.

Quibbles aside, Come and Be Shocked offers a valuable history of Black Baltimoreans challenging dominant narratives about, or totally ignorant of, African American life. Chicory magazine, funded through the War on Poverty, became a powerful venue for residents to publish Black Power critiques of failing liberal institutions. The 1974 film Amazing Grace dramatized residents’ fight over urban renewal projects, providing a rare victory for activists on screen if not in the streets. In the 1990s, Roc, a short-lived sitcom produced by Charles S. Dutton, depicted a working-class family navigating disappearing jobs, failing political leaders, and intergenerational struggle. In the same decade, the city’s legendary homegrown sound, club music, featuring the iconic Miss Tony, emerged from a tight network of venues, storefronts, and stations to make club music “one of Baltimore’s most influential cultural exports.” 

Rizzo is not merely rebalancing cultural scales long tipped in favor of Waters, Barry Levinson, Anne Tyler, and the annual HonFest. Rather, her interrogation of the racial economy that produced Charm City and Bodymore reveals why contested images must be understood in relation to one another. In effect, Come and Be Shocked provides an excellent model for reexamining multifaceted representations of place and, in doing so, points a way toward desegregating the cultural boundaries of postindustrial cities.

Daniel Cumming is completing a Ph.D. in U.S. History at New York University. He researches twentieth-century cities and examines the intersections of natural and built environments, health, racism, and capitalism. He is a 2020-21 National Fellow at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, a dissertation fellow at the Hagley Museum and Library, and a research fellow at the National Library of Medicine. His scholarship has been published in the journal Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, and his early research was supported by the Maryland Historical Society. Between 2009 and 2012, he taught at Carver Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore.

Featured image (at top): Baltimore’s “Greatest City in America” campaign came out of Mayor Martin O’Malley’s administration. Paul Sableman, “Baltimore – The Greatest City in America” (2013), Flicker.

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