Despite being one of the nation’s oldest cities, some might argue Baltimore crested in the popular mind during the early twenty-first century. Musically, Animal Collective, Dan Deacon and Beach House emerged to rave reviews. Tori Amos and Sisqo also hail from Charm City, as Complex magazine noted: “‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’ and ‘The Thong Song’ were indirectly or maybe directly influenced by this fair city on the Chesapeake.” Today, Future Island serves as the standard bearer for the local indie rock sound. In film, John Waters and Barry Levinson carry the torch.
Baltimore has been a key character in new media as well. The first season of the podcast Serial (2014) traversed metropolitan Baltimore. Journalist and podcast founder Sarah Koenig waded into true crime territory exploring the facts of a 2010 case in which Adnan Syed had been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. It both led to a boom in true crime podcasts and proved to be the rising tide that lifted all boats, raising the visibility of podcasts more generally in what is sometimes referred to as the “serial effect”.
Of course, one is compelled to make the obligatory reference to The Wire. Set in Baltimore and featuring several Charm City natives in its cast, the show spoke to the metropolis’s specificity while also encapsulating the struggles of many American cities. In retrospect, the oft-maligned and nefariously underrated second season presciently documented the collapse of the white working class; it appears to have been a canary in the pop culture coal mine signaling the coming populism. The HBO production has become the standard by which to gauge narrative depth and serves as a constant reminder to burgeoning writers to remain humble, a point Johns Hopkins historian and UHA Board Member N.D.B. Connolly made at #UHA2018.
Yet, to emphasize only the last fifty years ignores the contributions of other creative Baltimoreans. The cantankerous reporter, columnist, and literary tastemaker H.L. Menken issued proclamations about democracy and American culture from his perch in Charm City. In 1920, aggrieved by the dueling presidential campaigns of Warren G. Harding (R) and James M. Cox (D) Mencken quipped: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Frederick Douglass toiled away in Baltimore appreciating the city for what few shards of opportunity it offered enslaved peoples. “A city slave is almost a free citizen, in Baltimore, compared with a slave on Col. Lloyd’s plantation,” he wrote years later as he ascended in prominence as a leading abolitionist, civil rights leader, and newspaper editor.
Taking one long stride even further, Edgar Allen Poe wrote his stories of suspense, intrigue and horror as a resident of the city. The modern day football team derives its name from arguably his most famous work, “The Raven.”
The city’s founders probably never envisioned Poe’s creativity, Douglass’ determination, or The Wire’s almost Dickensian narrative power emerging from the small settlement they inadvertently birthed. Judging by the new political history of the city by Matt Crenson, no one had planned for Baltimore, period. The city “just happened.” After its 1729 charter that declared it “Baltimore Town,” it descended into “chronic political turmoil.” 
Roiling politics aside, it gradually grew, though Crenson writes it “was no boom town.” The grain industry eventually took off. Annexation added more land than people, but colonists eventually migrated to the city. Between 1730 and 1770 the number of merchants in the city grew by 150 percent; in 1750, 5,000 people resided in the city, making it one of the fastest growing cities in all of the colonies.  It would be the first “major city” incorporated after the American Revolution and to also establish a municipal government outside of British colonial authority. 
The War of 1812 brought America the “Star Spangled Banner” by way of Baltimore. “The citizen soldiers of Baltimore repulsed the British and their triumph was recorded in a ballad that would become the national anthem,” historian Mary P. Ryan writes. However, the war also created the opportunity for two of the city’s more famous public memorials: The Battle and the Washington Monuments. Each emerged as an expression of political ideology and tumult from the period, the city emerging as one of the “first and most fervent locations of aggressively popular and partisan politics” Ryan points out. The memorials operated as a testament to the city’s place in American history as it transformed in the burgeoning national consciousness from “mob town” to “the monumental city.” “Baltimore’s place in patriotic lore is memorialized not just in the strains of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ but in stone as well.” 
A vigorous public sphere, “a hive of free labor and merchant capitalism” and with a port location just beyond the Mason Dixon line, Baltimore became a destination for escaped and free blacks. Even before emancipation, the city’s population of free blacks outnumbered enslaved persons. Its mercantile and entrepreneurial economy put it at odds with the largely rural state.  “It is worthy of remark,” noted British journalist James Silk Buckingham in 1838, “that in all our intercourse with the people of Baltimore, and we were continually out in society, we heard less about slaves and slavery than in any town we had yet visited.” In contrast, in other border towns such as St. Louis and Alton, violence often visited the homes and offices of abolitionists. 
Slavery in Baltimore was fluid. Enslaved people enjoyed greater freedom in the city than their plantation counterparts. Masters hired out enslaved people to manufacturers and shipyards, and despite juxtaposing this work against plantation life, Douglass recognized that even in Baltimore being a slave was an ambivalent existence. “I endured all the evils of being a slave,” remembered Douglass, who labored in Fell’s Point, “and yet suffered all the care and anxiety of a responsible freedman.” 
After the war, African Americans flocked to the city. Between 1860 and 1880, 25,000 black migrants settled within city boundaries, doubling the city’s number of black residents who now made up 16 percent of Baltimore’s overall population. 
They arrived to a late nineteenth-century city in flux, transformed in the wake of emancipation and under the thumb of industrialization. The city’s tax base failed to adequately expand to fund urban improvements. Owners and renters refused increases in tax assessments leading to only a five percent gain in real per capital municipal expenditures from 1870-1895. Being a city of neighborhoods, 300 by one account, merchants and local residents sought to “forge strong political organizations outside the normal institutions of politics,” as Joseph Arnold wrote in 1979. As a result, residents witnessed the rise of neighborhood associations as counterweights to city hall. Emerging in the 1880s, by 1900 30 such associations canvassed nearly the entire city and several suburbs. 
At the turn of the century, Baltimore’s population exceeded 500,0000. At the ward or neighborhood level, the city contained multitudes, but at the block level segregation defined lived experience. “The rich lived on the widest best paved streets, the middling families on the side streets, and the lower classes in the alleys and courts,” Arnold wrote. Urban facilities and services, despite block level segregation, were by standards of the day, “fairly evenly distributed.” Neighborhood associations sought to exert power over distribution of resources, city finances, and other such matters. “Almost all the associations were established by men who believed their areas had been shortchanged by the municipal [or] by the county government.” 
Though not initially involved in segregation, by the early twentieth century associations advocated the exclusion of African Americans from white communities. Association leaders trafficked in the typical racist rhetoric of the day making references to “negro invasion,” expressing fear for “white womanhood”, and lamenting lower property values. Typical of the tenor of this discourse, one Harlem Improvement Association meeting attendee stated, “Negroes are but 400 years from savagery.” The association’s members hailing from a tenuous middle class; its officers identifying as clerks, businessmen, and artisans; its board of governors constructed similarly, consisting of a needlework artist, a paper bag manufacturer, a doctor, and a clothing wholesaler. “[P]recisely the white people most invested in segregation,” writes Gretchen Boger. 
While many associations stressed the protection of their investments and social standing, others asserted a loss of political power. Maryland whites had spent a decade trying, unsuccessfully, to disenfranchise black voters before abandoning the cause. This failure probably fed larger anxieties as greater numbers of African Americans moved to the city. The leaders of one such association agreed that it went beyond housing. “The three men felt that African Americans were slowly wresting control of white politics from white males,” writes Dennis Halpin. In reality, African Americans largely lived bunched into the seventeenth ward (Northwest Baltimore).
Considering the tone of the debate, white fears about increasing political impotence (despite evidence to the contrary), and base racism, conflict unsurprisingly followed as black families, already enduring substandard and overcrowded apartments and homes, looked for better housing. 
Progressives hoping to eliminate the threat of street level violence and protect middle class interests related to segregation passed the West Ordinance, a law shaped in part by the influence of neighborhood associations who over the years had built political power and experience. Middle class white Baltimoreans also played a critical role in the law’s development, in part by serving as the aggressive front lines against integration in the steed of their wealthier counterparts. “The preeminence of a middling stratum of white residents in Baltimore’s residential segregation battle was telling,” notes Boger. “Many of the proponents of the West Ordinance represented a tier of whites with a tenuous hold on middle-class reputation—a petty bourgeoisie—who often had moved to the neighborhoods in question just ahead of African Americans.” They sought to protect their social and economic reputations.
City planners and elites evidenced little participation in the ordinance. Elites and reformers were more than happy to allow their middle class counterparts to serve as “the frontline attack” against integration. 
The ordinance, which became the nation’s first residential ordinance in the country when it was signed into law December 19, 1910, critically cited the city’s right to deploy “police power” for “preserving order and securing property and persons from violence, danger and destruction.” This use of “police power” in the West Ordinance “cemented the contention that African Americans—not the angry whites who attacked black families—caused disorder and violence by their very presence,” argues Halpin. The ordinance transformed the police into “foot soldiers in the fight against integration” with black Baltimoreans as the “threat to the social order.” 
Whereas the pre-industrial city and its boundaries changed slowly, in turn-of-the-century Baltimore change was swift. The ordinance attempted to address this by banning white residents from moving into majority black neighborhoods and blacks from doing the same in majority white communities—a non-partisan solution deployed in a very prejudicial way. African Americans rejected the idea that segregation protected both races. The Afro American Ledger called the ordinance “anti-American.”
At the time, Baltimore had the highest rates of home ownership among nearly 75 southern cities. Such status escaped most black residents however as the city ranked 72 in African American homeownership. From 1900 to 1920, the city’s black population expanded by over 30,000 yet only 100 black families added their names to the list of Baltimore homeowners during the same period so the housing crunch in black communities proved particularly acute. 
The law’s implementation caused far more headaches than anticipated. The ordinance stifled black dreams of homeownership in new communities, but it also hurt white residents. The law boxed in white families living in already mixed neighborhoods; it limited their ability to sell their homes while also undermining attempts at renting out properties. “Proponents of the ordinance sought to solidify their social status at the expense of not only black Baltimoreans but of other whites as well,” asserts Boger. 
Believing residential segregation to be a critical piece of the larger battle for equality, the ordinances drew the ire of the city’s African American community. “Physical slavery has been abolished, but its subtler forms are still here. Disenfranchisement, ‘jim crowism’ and segregation are but subtler forms of race slavery,” said Warner T. McGuinn civil rights activist and attorney at a meeting in 1913. Black Baltimoreans boycotted merchants who refused to break with the law. Churches organized protest rallies and collected money for a legal challenge. The Baltimore branch of NAACP solicited funds toward the same end as legal challenges were mounted. 
Ironically, the municipal courts declared the original statue invalid weeks after it became law. New ordinances were quickly drafted to replace it. Written by a narrow, racist set of interests, it demonstrated the weakness of the segregationist argument. The West Ordinance did not force any family to move, it ceded land in the city to areas already occupied by African Americans, and generally just sought to control who lived next door. Its supporters hoped “to freeze the racial make up of Baltimore’s residential blocks just as they were in September 1910.” By 1913, the ordinance had been suspended which enabled black Baltimoreans to open up additional neighborhoods for settlement. 
In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled in Buchanan v. Warley against state laws imposing segregation. The Kentucky law under dispute in the Supreme Court case had been written based on the Baltimore ordinance. Even in Baltimore the West Ordinance cast a powerful spell over the city’s spatial development. By legalizing segregation, the municipal government legitimized segregationists and their like-minded neighborhood associations and enabled the discourse of declining property values, without evidence, that would be repeated so many times it became institutionalized in the architecture of the real estate industry and the government’s redlining policies. 
The second episode of The Wire’s third season, “All Due Respect,” opens with local project resident and Barksdale soldier, Preston “Bodie” Broadus (J.D. Williams), relating a recent conversation he had with two apparent tourists who got lost looking for the Edgar Allen Poe house. Bodie relates, “He’s like, ‘Young man, you know where the Poe House is?’ I’m like, ‘Unc, you kidding? Look around, take your pick.’” When the older couple circled back and asked again, Bodie repeated his incredulity: “Shit, you back already? First of the month, yo. I’m like, ‘I don’t know no Edward Allan Poe.’ The man look at me all sad and shit, like I let him down.”
To be fair, one could unpack a lot in that quote, hence the resigned but admittedly awed reference to the show earlier. The reality is that while Poe’s Baltimore residence still stands, it does so amidst a very different community, one created by a world opened up by the West Ordinance.
As always, this overview is just a starting point—as is the bibliography below. We welcome suggestions in the comments. Moreover, based on correspondence with our contributors and others working on Baltimore, it sounds as if urban historians might be in store for a “golden age” of historical interpretations of Charm City as several new publication are forthcoming. We’d like to thank Seth Rockman, Paige Glotzler, Dennis Halprin, and Sara Patenaude for their help with the bibliography.
Arnold, Joseph L. “The Neighborhood and City Hall: The Origin of Neighborhood Associations in Baltimore, 1880-1911.” Journal of Urban History 6.1 (1979): 3-30.
Baum, Howell S. Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.
Belfoure, Charles and Hayward, Mary Ellen. The Baltimore Rowhouse. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001.
Boger, Gretchen E. “The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City: Baltimore’s Residential Segregation Ordinances, 1910-1913.” The Journal of Urban History. 35.2 (January 2009): 236-258.
Brugger, Robert J. Maryland: A Middle Temperament: 1634-1980. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Collier-Thomas, Bettye. “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard, 1866-1884: Reflections Upon its Inception and Ownership.” The Journal of Negro History. Volume LIX, No. 1 (Jan 1974): 1-12.
Crenson, Matthew. Baltimore: A Political History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
Crooks, James B. Politics and Progress: The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Davis, Josh. From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Doster, Dennis. “‘This Independent Fight We are Making is Local’: The Election of 1920 and Electoral Politics in Black Baltimore.” Journal of Urban History 44.2 (2018): 134-152.
Durr, Kenneth D. Behind the Backlash: White Working-Class Politics in Baltimore, 1940-1980. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Elfenbein, Jessica I. The Making of a Modern City: Philanthropy, Civic Culture, and the Baltimore YMCA. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001.
Elfenbein, Jessica, Thomas Hollowak, and Elizabeth Nix, eds. Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.
Elfenbein, Jessica, John H. Breihan, and Thomas L. Hollowak eds. From Mobtown to Charm City: Papers From The Baltimore History Conference. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2005.
Farrar, Haywood. The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Fee, Elizabeth, Linda Shopes, and Linda Zeidman, eds. The Baltimore Book: New Views on Local History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle. Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009
Fuke, Richard Paul. Imperfect Equality: African Americans and the Confines of White Racial Attitudes in Post-Emancipation Maryland. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999.
Gardner, Bettye. “Ante-Bellum Black Education in Baltimore.” Maryland Historical Magazine 71.3 (Fall, 1976): 360-366.
Glotzer, Paige. “Exclusion in Arcadia: How Suburban Developers Circulated Ideas about Discrimination, 1890-1950.” Journal of Urban History 41.3 (2015): 479-494.
Gomez, Marisela. Race, Class, Power, and Organizing in East Baltimore: Rebuilding Abandoned Communities in America. Lexington Books, 2015.
Graham, Leroy. Baltimore: The Nineteenth Century Black Capital. New York: The University Press of America, 1982.
Halpin, Dennis P. “‘The Struggle for Land and Liberty’: Segregation, Violence, and African American Resistance in Baltimore, 1898-1918.” Journal of Urban History 44.4 (2018): 691-712.
Harris, Jennifer. “Black Canadian Contexts: The Case of Amelia E. Johnson.” African American Review 49.3 (Fall 2016): 24-259.
Hemphill, Katie M. “‘Drive to the Commission of this Crime’: Women and Infanticide in Baltimore, 1835-1860.” Journal of the Early Republic 32.3 (Fall 2012): 437-461.
Kargon, Jeremy. “A Symbolic Landscape for Suburbia: Baltimore Chizuk Amuno’s ‘Hebrew Culture Garden.’” Journal of Urban History 40.4 (2014): 762-791.
King, P. Nicole. “Preserving Places, Making Spaces in Baltimore: Seeing the Connections of Research, Teaching and Service as Justice.” Journal of Urban History 40.3 (2014): 425-449.
Malka, Adam. The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
Morrow, Diane Batts. Persons of Color and Religious at the Same Time: The Oblate Sisters of Providence, 1828-1860. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Orser, Edward. Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmonson Village Story. University of Kentucky Press, 1997.
Orser, Edward. “Secondhand Suburbs: Black Pioneers in Baltimore’s Edmondson Village, 1955-1980.” Journal of Urban History 16.3 (1990): 227-262.
Phillips, Christopher. Freedom’s Port: The African-American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
Pietilla, Antero. Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City. Ivan R. Dee, 2010.
Power, Garrett. “Apartheid Baltimore Style: The Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913.” Maryland Law Review 42 (1983): 248-349.
Roberts, Samuel K. Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease and Health Effects of Segregation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Rockman, Seth. Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Ryan, Mary P. “Democracy Rising: The Monuments of Baltimore, 1809-1842.” Journal of Urban History 36.2 (2010): 127-150.
Schley, David. “Tracks in the Streets: Railroads, Infrastructure, and Urban Space in Baltimore, 1828-1840.” Journal of Urban History 39.6 (2013): 1062-1084.
Shufelt, Gordon H. “Jim Crow Among Strangers: The Growth of Baltimore’s Little Italy and Maryland’s Disfranchisement Campaigns.” The Journal of American Ethnic History 19(4): 49-78.
Smith, C. Fraser. Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Thomas, Bettye C. “A Nineteenth Century Black Operated Shipyard, 1866-1884: Reflections Upon its Inception and Ownership.” The Journal of Negro History Volume LIX, Number 1 (January 1974): 1-12.
Williams, Rhonda Y. The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles Against Urban Inequality. Oxford University Press, 2005.
Explore Baltimore Heritage. Baltimore Heritage, Inc. https://explore.baltimoreheritage.org
Baltimore Uprising 2015 Archive Project. Maryland Historical Society.
 Matt Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2017), 9-16.
 Crenson, Baltimore, 15-17.
 Mary P. Ryan, “Democracy Rising: The Monuments of Baltimore,” Journal of Urban History 36.2 (2010): 129.
 Ryan, “Democracy Rising,” 128, 143.
 Ryan, “Democracy Rising”, 129.
 Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History, 161.
 Crenson, Baltimore, 164.
 Dennis Halpin, “‘The Struggle for Land and Liberty’: Segregation, Violence, and African American Resistance in Baltimore, 1898 -1918,” Journal of Urban History 44.4 (2018): 692-693.
 Joseph L. Arnold, “The Neighborhood and City Hall: The Origin of Neighborhood Associations in Baltimore, 1880-1911,” Journal of Urban History 6.1 (1979): 6.
 Arnold, “The Neighborhood and City Hall”, 7, 14.
 Gretchen Boger, “The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City: Baltimore’s Residential Segregation Ordinances, 1910-1913”, Journal of Urban History 35.2 (January 2009): 244.
 Halpin, “‘The Struggle for Land and Liberty,’” 695.
 Boger, “The Meaning of Neighborhood in the Modern City,” 237-238.
 Halpin, 697.
 Boger, 248.
 Ibid., 246.
 Halpin, 702, 706-707.
 Boger, “239.
 Ibid., 707.
Featured image (at top): Row houses, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, November 1, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress