Archive for the 'Social Studies' Category

10
Jan
13

Winning Ugly — The beauty of being Not Pretty — an Essay about psyche of a Ravens Fan

Image

The heart and soul of Baltimore’s now nationally famous tailgate scene is NOT on the official lots  at M&T Bank Stadium.  Nothing wrong with those lots of well-healed spectators. They surely put out a great spread one more outlandish than the next. From the stainless steel grill the size of a bass boat to the gramps bunkered down in a van with three tier rotating carousel of liquor,  M&T offers up a might buffet that doesn’t welcome my kind — peddlers.

Lucky for me hauling around a massive bag of newly minted T-Shirts, there’s the wilds of the Baltimore hinterlands that sprawls through what is the city’s oldest industrial sites.  To the South was the B&O Warehouse, made a museum  to the North was the Mount Clare House, which oversaw a colonial forge one of Baltimore’s first. Lost in the middle is  this flatland of rubble, weeds and harsh hughed buildings along Ostand Street snaking up Warner Street and slivers and lots under bridges in-between. The Mad-Max revelers unleash their twisted take on the family picnic. Booze presented on checkered table clothes.  Kids play catch alongside the railroad tracks before a nervous security guard looking for the flashing signal lights listening for tale-tell moan of the rail. In fact the tracks is littered with the purple-cladded doing a hobos stroll, taking  pisses while guzzling urine-colored beer at the same time.  More times than expected a train pushes oafishly through, the wheels grinding in a fist pumping camaraderie. The blast of the horn definitely so.

A D.J. sets up his mobile studio and mashes up country-western with hip-hop. Absorbing it all like he’s done for years is  T sitting like a kingpin reading the paper — who reads the paper at a tailgate?

“Without the football team a lot of people of different races would not have met,” he said. “ They have their differences and the whole nine but there’s one common denominators, the Baltimore Ravens, the purple and black.”

And with my T-shirts I was hoping to plug into this common  denominator not just into the Ravens, but the definition of the season and hell why not – the city.

 

Winning Ugly is a Beautiful Thing — Laying down a concept is ruckus that is Baltimore Tailgate scene not an easy thing especially when the competition gets to sell trademarked protected and lawyer enforced emblems and player’s jerseys, which has become a required uniform for the football fan.  But every once in a while a rouge t-shirt comes along that sums of the moment. I believed that Winning Ugly was that next big thing.  Like Ball So Hard  University was last year.

Winning Ugly surely would make a connect – I thought. While the Ravens forged a reputation for not winning pretty, this season has been particularly vexing. The Ravens vaunted Defense loomed at the bottum of ranking and the high-hoped anticipated high powered offense played like  Joe Cool has been supplanted by Flaky Flacco and yet were playoff bound, I was hoping to give the fan to embrace the team’s inner-ugly for a bargin price of ten dollars. Then Ray Lewis had to go mess this whole spleen venting indulgence up and announce his retirement. Hours before the Ravens played the Colts nobody mentioned the old tired history of the Baltimore Colts leaving town. It was all about Ray.  Nobody wanted to hear about Winning Ugly with  the return of Ray Lewis. After being out for nearly eight weeks due to an injury, Ray Lewis presence was conjuring up images of days of yore when he and his fellow hunters terrorized offenses to the point it wasn’t even physical. The quarterback would become mired in his own mind game.

 

It’s a  simple T-shirt with high aspirations, a newly minted slogan, a get rich quick scheme, a chance to experience that hustler’s rush of peddling on the streets, a chance to step away from being a passive spectator and ride back-drafts of a team plunging into post-season glory. What I got was a crass view of Baltimore’s psyche, the collective unease of being the step-child of the Mid-Atlantic, a harsh view that comes ever clear with a butt whipping when I hit the streets.

You know that character Bubbles in the Wire> Well I was like his shopping cart  buddy who we all know was doomed for an ugly end all caught on a little video.winning ugly under bridge

This project wasn’t all about selling shirts, but also engaging the crowd, a little subversive instigating in the guise of  a street hustle for a short film. As a low-end documentary filmmaker,  I’ve always been attracted to dynamic of old school peddling. I’ve done more than my share of A-rabbing stories and videos. I did a film about  a successful New York street musician. I followed around Fancy Clancy, beer vendor extraordinaire for two years. But this t-shirt scheme has fermented for years until I could stand it no more.

I figure the shirt not only fits this team, particularly this season, but if embraced — that is if you embrace the inner ugly — than you’ll experience a  transcendence and isn’t what we all want in a football team or as fan of any sport. You’re hoping to experience transcendence or more accurately live vicariously through the players. But the ugly truth that very little if anything that happens on the field will fix the lives of those up in the stands and out in media land.  We are stuck with our selves like a hangover while the players go on to their exclusive euphoria capped with hundreds of thousands if not millions,   that us fans manufacture for them – that is unless you got a stake, a wager, a business, 150 t-shirts that needs to be sold.

Finding the good in the ugly was what I was preaching to  the fine folks  tailgating in the nooks and crannied remnants of South Baltimore’s old world industry — vacant lots festooned with purple tassels and obscene suggestions for Ben Roethlisberger — It was Steelers Week and the fan base stewed, hellishly, enflamed further with each yield of the bottle.  And there I was, the short misfit among gunslingers, talking some nonsense about benefits of winning ugly.

“Winning Ugly is a beautiful thing. Winning is a beautiful thing. Embrace it and if you do we’ll ride this horse to the Super Bowl. Give up on the dream of being a Peyton Manning Team. Fuck that. I wanna win ugly all the way and piss the whole world off. “

At this point it was no longer about selling a t-shirt for ten bucks. It was about if  these boys were thinking about kicking my ass.

Winning Ugly selling on streets

But I still, at this writing defend my actions.  I am going down believing that  Winning Ugly is beautiful thing is the Ravens true identity whether the team crushes their  opponents or is given a gift-win. In fact I believe that winning ugly is where they find  their glory.

“They are not the most esthetically pleasing team to watch — they can put up 55 points one game and not get 8 points the next,”

Bob Haynie, a Sports Radio Talk Show Host for 105.7 the Fan, who  offers a point of reason on the airwaves particularly after a loss,  but does so  in a scratchy voice one suspects is forged from yelling at the TV, cured by cigs and distilled by libation

Ever since the Ravens ugly Super Bowl Win in 2001 where a historic defense lead by then four year Linebacker Ray Lewis, Haynie and the rest of the sports show hosts have fielded irate calls about lame play calling, inept quarterback play be it  Kyle Boller to Joe Flacco, who by many accounts takes extra heat,  and a general offense that can look clueless at times.

“Everybody wants to identify with the team’s hard working smash mouth grind it out — throw out any cliché you wanna to use but at the end of the day they want Joe Flacco to be Joe Montana. And when he’s not that’s when the complaints roll in.”

No doubt Baltimore dug deep in their Ravens Defense street cred. As Warren Sapp put it, when his team won Tampa Bay Buccaneers team won the Super Bowl the next year, “The Ravens made defense cool.”

But you get the feeling the NFL wasn’t too keen on games being won on Defense. Before The Ravens Super Bowl win over the New York Giants, Ray Lewis stated that all they all needed was for the Offense was to put up 3 points and Defense would take care of the rest.) Rules were instated that hampered defense play including preventing cornerbacks from “ touching” receivers five yards off the line of scrimmage. The word was that the NFL was looking for more scoring and flags for illegal hits start flying. Even the Ravens the next year didn’t believe in their Winning Ugly M.O.  and jettisoned Game Managing Quarterback Trent Dilfer for Glory Boy Elvis Grbac, a decision that came back to haunt the Ravens like a curse. Grbac left the team and the game in tears and the Baltimore fan base  was driven to tears by watching the clown shoes footwork of Kyle Boller. The team was either by design or  out of survival stuck with keeping the Defense stout, despite a doomsday chorus of prognosticator declaring the end of the ancient adage “Defense Wins Championships.” According to the NFL stats, The Ravens produced a Top 5 defense eight out its last ten years.winning ugly stadium

Players like Ed Reed, Bart Scott, Adalous Thomas, Kelly Gregg, Jerrett Johnson,   and Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Ladarous Webb to name too, powered a fierce Baltimore’s defense. It didn’t seem to matter who was the defense coordinator,  Marvin Lewis,  Mike Nolan Rex Ryan now Dean Pees, the Ravens consistently inflicted  its will on opposing offenses. And  Baltimore, with a rich sports heritage but one fraught with some horrible losses (The Colts 68 Loss New York Jets has been the greatest upset.), not to mention step child status to cities like New York, Philadelphia Boston and Washington, D.C. ate ugly defense identity up.  Even Pittsburgh, the Ravens arch-rivals, , at times would top the Ravens in Defense standing, with Baltimore taking number, has had a dynamic offense ever since Ben Roethlisberger came into the league and made magic with tenacious receiver Hynes Ward. It can be easy to pair the defense with Baltimore’s blue collar vibe.

Talk to Ernie Ernie Grecco, 70 year old native, who watched when an upstart Colt Team beat the Giants in what now has been called the Greatest Game Ever Played, because of the first use of Sudden Death and the dynamic play of Johnny Unitas. Back then Sparrows Point had 35,000 workers. There was a General Motors Plant. Armco Steel and Continental Can. Baltimore was second to New York in the garment industry. The city was chalked full of Breweries. Grecco, now the President of the AFL-CIO in Metropolitan Baltimore got his start at the Seagram Distillery. “Now it’s all gone,” he said.

But Grecco bails before going down life was sweeter in the good ole days brattle. He marvels that Baltimore, a town that people drove through to get from D.C. to Philadelphia, pointed out in a National Geographic article – has emerged as a destination point. “I’d rather have the jobs the good manufacturing jobs,” he said.  “But people love Baltimore.”

Baltimore’s hard climb as a destination point for artists and those looking to break out on their own has surprised yours truly. I remember my dad driving me around as a kid pointing out the few hot spots in other dreary streets — Louis Bookstore, Bread and Roses Coffee House, Peabody’s Bookstore. Now city pulsates tailights from Woodberry, Hamden down through the Charles Street Arts district into Fed Hill and Fells Point, Canton and beyond. I remember when you couldn’t find a cab now the streets team with taxis and you still can’t find one — empty.

But last week came a new realization. I was out in LA desperate for something on the radio when I came to a DJ gushing about Dan Deacon’s America. He talked how he was out to Baltimore and how those places that Deacon refers to like “Guilford Avenue Bridge” really do exist and that he could see why Deacon doesn’t wanna leave.

Never in my dreams did I think Baltimore would get such recognition, much of which has already been documented in this paper.

It’s gotten to the point that natives like myself have become a bit rare, maybe not like Formstone, but maybe like Berger Cookies. We around but you got to know where to find us. And for the last 10 years I’ve heard from the new settlers an appreciation of the feel of history. Sports Talk Show Host Rob Long noted that many blue colar towns like Cleveland or East Coast cities like Boston have rich sports heritage with teams that pre-date ours by more than half a century, Baltimore keeps its history close to the surface.

It’s the difference someone who keeps the family heirlooms in a cherry wood box or someone who displays the great, grand-dads fiddle on the wall or even plays it. .In fact, Long takes it another step further and says that Baltimore’s revels in the under-dog snub.

“I don’t know if it’s an inferiority complex or our edge,” Long said. Long warns that people shouldn’t interpret the complaints about snubs or National Coverage conspiracies as self hatred. “We don’t believe it.”

But change does come even for a town that has a firm grip on the past and old fashion smash mouth football. For one, Baltimore is in the mists of its fifth straight playoff birth but also racking up at least one win  in the post-season. And during this run there’s been a seismic shift from defense is king to offense led by Joe Flacco, who came in as an under-dog, from a below the radar school University of Delaware and looking to be a second stringer at least at first until Troy Smith got sick right before opening season. The problem is for a whole host of reasons, the offense hasn’t hit the heights of the Ravens defense. Last year it looked like Flacco and The Ravens was about to plateau at beautiful heights with a spot in the Super Bowl. The Season careened from brilliant play — from opening day beat-down against the dreaded Pittsburgh Steelers to the  head scratching bungle in Jacksonville. But in the AFC Championship  Flacco did what everyone out their in radio and web-land  have been clamoring for: Flacco put the team on his shoulders and marched the team down the field. With less than a minute, Tom Brady was on the bench, his head in his hands and Flacco reared back and found Lee Evans in the End Zone. What followed is one of the ugliest drops – somehow a New England defender managed to lurch two steps in the endzone and knock the ball out before Evan could but the second foot down to be called a touchdown. Two plays later Billy Cunduff shanks a gimmie field goal to at least send the game into overtime. Talk about an ugly loss. Man put that one on the NFL top ten why don’t cha.

Honestly it’s surprisingly the Ravens could even muster the nerve to be contender this year.  Long is convinced that Ravens 5-11 showing in 2007 was a hangover from the Ravens 13-3, throwing a dismal and ill-advised pic in the Playoffs against the dreaded Colts, losing their chance to get to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens have ridden  the top of our division the entire season and it felt like we’ve been in a tail spin. Hell at 9-3 we fired our offensive coordinator. Who fires an offensive coordinator when the playoffs seemed almost certain and the losses could have been put on the defense who allow The Steelers and then the Washington Redskins to drive the field and win.

“We’ve become spoiled,” Haynie said. Drew Breeze threw a ton of touchdowns and he will be home watching the playoffs with everybody else. The fan base, fans in all cities they tend to harp on the negative more than the positive.”

the competition was not only fierce but wise.

the competition was not only fierce but wise.

So Winning Ugly is a Beautiful Thing. Right. No way to dress this season up — the miracle 4 and 29, 30 yard run by Ray Rice in San Diego was as ugly win as anything. The next day Flacco got mocked for not daring to throw down field like a real quarterback, instead he dumped it off to running back in the flat with a lot of real estate to make up. No way to dress this season up. Might as well give it an ugly kiss and feel better about ourselves.

Ah Theories look much better on paper, but as soon as they hit the air they start to tarnish. It wasn’t pretty for this little peddler out there folks. I never felt so short.

I sold 14 shirts and everyone was tough and took a lot a patter.  There was a time I got a bunch of grissled fans engaged in some conversation, the first step to a sale.

“Hey Buddy, Hey Buddy. You’re selling to the wrong crowd.

“What

This is a homeless shelter.

I played the fool well. Doing a hard sell to a woman who wondered if I would be there after a game, while a stranger freaked her. I turn around and spot tons of  Pittsburgh Sucks shirts everywhere. A bail bonds company was giving them away.  Ten dollars can’t compete for Free. One  woman mocked me and said I needed to change the saying to “A win’s a win.”

“A win’s a win?”

Her eyes spoke loud as any jeer  — you doofus.

“You’re never going to sell shirts with that.”

Next stop a man heckled during a near sale. “I’ll give you two cookies and two dollars. This heckler owned the massive lot and demanded a five dollar shirt if I wanted to keep selling on his lot, the only lot that I had made multiple sales.

He already called me a fuck up and “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

But in this business you can’t have any pride and when I’m saying this business, I’m referring to journalism. A journalist has to eat it for a story. Many cases I’m intruding or at the very least culling their world and if you want truth, you got to seek pain. Tom Nugent, a teacher told me that back in J-school at U of Maryland. If it was  not for him I’d never be a journalist, which isn’t such a good idea these days with the written word and the newspapers in such straights. He would urge us to “seek pain,” look for the truth by throwing off the cliché’s and the formulaic. He inspired me to aim to be a great writer, not that I am or ever be, but to aim for it anyway. Why not go high, but to do so would be an ugly road. He warned me. He also hated sports, football especially. He thought sports was an opiate for the masses, a place where people took their broken lives and dreams and hung them on a team that would do nothing but take their money, get them drunk and feed their shortcomings that many times exploded into violence and abuse. That’s the truth of sports, he’d say.  “I used to see blood run down the steps of Memorial Stadium.”

His father was Tom Nugent (Sr.), The Football Coach at University of Maryland, back in the 50s. Through his access due to his father, Tom was struck by the brutality  on the student athletes — not the physical impact but the lie that aspiring athletes were left along with their shattered knees and no hope of getting into the NFL. But worse,he says, is how sport obliterates people’s view of the ills of society. As sports engulf the culture he says, society has become, “so degraded and vile, it’s hard to look at.”

“By roaring at this abstraction that we call our team in the stadium, we avoid the big problem of community mainly the killings that go on forever in the ghettos of Baltimore,” he told in a phone interview.

I believe he spoke the truth. PSLs is a crock after we the people paid millions to build that stadium and what’s worse is the time – weekend quality time – that I spend away from wife and kids. More than once I’ve come back from the stadium with this sick feeling that I’ve been had, that why am I putting so much physical, monitory effort in something that means nothing while my life could use such effort.  Each summer I proclaim I’m not going to be into it that much, my friends and family laugh.

But I love football. Can’t help it. I love it. I loved The Baltimore Colts, got my heard broken and stayed away from it until the Ravens showed up in very ugly fashion I might add.

Football to me is about the struggle, seek pain — it plays out the hassles of the day to day of living.

They say soccer is a beautiful game. That may be true in real time. But in slow mo there’s nothing more beautiful than Football. Even baseball — besides Brooks Robinson watching clips of him scooping up balls, still sends chills up my spine). But the struggle as violent as it is what I relate to ….  Between the rants of the God-talk Ray Lewis  personifies the struggle.

The shoe of Johnny U kept shinny by folks rubbing for good luck

The shoe of Johnny U kept shinny by folks rubbing for good luck

I not much for hero-worship, but I dig Ray Lewis work ethic, how he stresses working on the little things. That’s all in the work you put in or as Jackson Pollack put it, “Work is Art.” How amazing it must be to go to Ray’s house and do film study with him and Ed Reed and whom ever else. I once met an ex-linebacker who had dreams of making it back into the league. He never did, but he kept himself in shape and the day after The Ravens horrible loss (worse than  ugly) to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2010 playoffs when the Ravens went from 24-7 in the half to losing with a series of dropped passes on Flacco’s last drive, the day after that, Ray Lewis called this guy up and asked him to work out throughout the afternoon. That’s all I need to hear about the man.

But my misgivings about Old 52 retiring had nothing to do with missing his presence. No. I had a feeling it was going to throw static in my Winning Ugly vibe. And when I parked my car for an extra ten bucks, I knew it was over. I gave t-shirts to the parking lot attendants and invaded people personal space, re-working my pitch:

I know we’re going to win pretty today. But in Denver we’re going to scratch and claw, so you might as well sit on your coach next week with this t-shirt on.

Not one sale.

I found myself on the Southside of the tracks penned in by a slow moving freighter and security fencing. The train wheels screeched something fierce and I sold one shirt. I turned to get a number of a guy who says he would buy one but he’s leaving the country on account of Obama winning the elections and the taxes.  His wife verified that they were packing boxes to move to South America.

When I got his name turns out this bail bondsman was in my class in Mount Washington Elementary School. Everything changed. He brought his dad over, gave me a drink and we talked about the fights down by Falls Road. This wasn’t Whole Foods Baltimore.  The train was gone but I wasn’t going anywhere as he marveled over Baltimore’s small town vibe.

“This is a blue colar working hard team, that’s gonna do what it takes to win, just like Baltimore Cty , unemployed taxes through the roof, but they are gonna make it work. When you see Ray Lewis come out you’re gonna see the real Baltimore City.

I went to see Ray’s last game and as Rob Long predicted the story line has changed – It’s no longer about the dreaded Colts (the ones who scorned us via Mayflower Trucks) coming to town. It’s about a Raven leaving.”

Sitting next to me was  Minnie Niazi, who forgo her club seats to sit with her daughter.

“They are a hardnosed fighting battling  guys, that give us all they have and we love them,” said Minnie Niazi of Annapolis with a dog named Lewis.

The game started out ugly – exchanging turnovers, but finished in a noble way. Not a beat-down, but a hard fought win that at time was closer than the 24-9 implied.

When I got back the parking lot attendant looked up and said, “Hey I got a lot of comments on your shirt. If you leave some with me, I’ll make some sales for you.”

Sure thing, Next Year/.

Check out the five minute film at http://vimeo.com/55525096

And for a David Lynch look — https://vimeo.com/54908743

password winning

Bryan Bello camera man.

Bryan Bello camera man.

26
Apr
11

Baltimore Mayor First. William Donald Schaefer may have been a two-term Governor, but his heart belonged to Baltimore.

The late Governor and Baltimore William Donald Schaefer heads to City Hall one last time.

There’s a reason, that the pugnacious funeral procession started Monday morning in Annapolis where William Donald Schaefer officially hit his career crest as governor from 1987 to 1995, but ended roaming through his hometown of Baltimore before landing for a day of viewing at City Hall .

Baltimore is  still  morphing into the vision that he created 40 years ago. As Baltimore’s histrionic Mayor, he  grabbed national attention for having the gall to envision a dirty rotting wharf-front as a gilded tourist attraction.  Here is where he made his mark as four-term  Mayor Willie Don.

Schaefer will be eulogized as the guy who flipped the switch for mayors stuck with dying waterfronts not just nationwide, but worldwide, to view their harbors , not as derelict land but potential vacation spots for tourist looking some of that beach vibrations in between their jaunts to the ocean. Why couldn’t people get that good ol boardwalk stroll in the city. Crazy. Preposterous. Nuts as the guy who jumped into the seal tank at the National aquarium. Oh wait that was Schaefer.

But to Baltimore he was so much more. He was an old school character, tough and goofy, a little hard-boiled, part Comic Costello. He exuded a kind of fairy tale aura that drew you in the schtick and still did even from the hearse.  Even on Monday’s procession, you were in his world.

I saw this one last time today. When I was standing in Fells Point, one of about 14 stops on his tour de Baltimore before he was laid out at City Hall. I was standing in this still yet to fully blossom Colonial seaport, home of the Baltimore clipper, 1812 privateers and  tugs vacated to make way for a waterfront hotel that has yet to appear. This was also the place that Schaefer wanted demolished in the late 60s and 70s for I-95, 695 interchange.  This was the place where Schaefer realized the strength of the neighborhood, after fierce fighting, enduring protestors dressed like American Revolutionaries,  and he realized that rather  than bull them over like Robert Moses did up in New York, he embraced Fells Point and neighbors in the city.

Senator Barbara Mikulski displays a sign for the cause that launched her career and shaped Baltimore

So there stood his chief foe, Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. Senator flanked by neighborhood activists of days long gone. She told me how during the long battle, a low point came after she, then councilwoman, lost a bill to save the neighborhood and other waterfront stalwarts like Federal Hill across the Harbor, which now stands as  Baltimore’s more humble version of Boston’s Beacon Hill.. But rather than bask in his victory, Schaefer noticed something big was brewing in the neighborhoods.  He called Mikulski and others in for a sit down and fate did a slow change.   And when the motorcade finally ambled up the Fells Point cobblestones and came to rest in front of Jimmy’s Diner, a one time politico hotspot, the cluster of a crowd cheered. About 50 strong went ecstatic — a strange reaction at a funeral procession. But it was as if  the mayor was gonna step from the black shine of the limo , his  eggplant head  never  find balance on his neck, always in motion, looking for an angle, contorting his face, rolling his eyes,  yes even clown-like. His act was infectious when at his prowess and at times sadly ill-timed when he got older.  Still he was pure Baltimore, a tugboat of a man, tenacity done different. So when Old Schaefer failed to step out the limo, they cheered for his aid, as if  it was a homecoming. The strangeness stretched on as a classic Schaefer event, which of course it was, hitting spots like Faidley’s at Lexington Market and was it an accident that limo paused in front of Attman’s Deli on Lombard Street as if he was going shoot the you know what in the KibitzRoom.

Schaefer's entourage heads down what was once the heart of Jewish Baltimore.

Working the crowd, today’s pols should be as masterful.

I remember when I had a similar  private audience with the king. It was behind old Memorial Stadium, three-quarters demolished. I was doing my first documentary, about Baltimore’s emotional hold  on the stadium, which he argued unsuccessfully to save. (Why I’m not exactly sure) On his  suggestion, he pulled up  and jumped out of the Limo and laid down the reasoning, how the demolition of the stadium was a failure of imagination. He did this right in the middle of the street and just nailed it with no press hands, no guards. Just him in his suit and the limo. Then he jumped back in and jetted.Whether you agreed with his politics. (He didn’t make too many friends when he bailed on Jimmy Carter for Reagan back in 1980), you had to admire his mastery of the craft.  Of course the major flaw with Schaefer’s plan was you can’t replace an economy w th tourist glitz even if you crown it with jewel of a baseball stadium.  A major salvo against Schaefer was his avoidance or glossing over some the major urban issues, the crushing repercussion urban renewal, like of jobs in the city . Baltimore’s African American community lost the very historic assets  that now would help turn around neighborhoods like Pennsylvania Avenue’s one time famous jazz district.

Schaefer’s passing isn’t an end of an era. That era was long gone. You could see it  in the ragtag crowds around  town. There were clusters of people, A few hundred here, 90 there. But the thousands were absent.

That may because many of  the Baltimore contingent are dead or have left the city a while back, although I’m betting his funeral on Wednesday will be a major draw.    Of course the major flaw with Schaefer’s plan was you can’t replace an economy with tourist glitz even if you crown it with a jewel of a baseball stadium.  A major salvo against Schaefer was his avoidance or glossing over some the major urban issues, the crushing repercussion of  urban renewal, the loss of good paying  jobs in the city . Baltimore’s African American  community lost the very historic assets  that now would help turn around neighborhoods like Pennsylvania Avenue’s one time famous jazz district.

Despite the shortcomings, Schaefer had heart, an unabashed radiance woefully  missing in these wound-too tight times. Too much risk to let your personality shine, too many people with video on their phones. Schaefer himself as an 80-year-old Comptroller was taken down by gaffes that came off sexist, out mode and crass. Still we could use a guy who would bother to work the crowd. A lot is being made about Schaefer’s jump in the pool at the National Aquarium. But that was one of hundreds of so-called stunts. During some research at the News American archives now stored at University of Maryland, I came upon boxes upon boxes of Schaefer immersing himself in  tiny neighborhood shing-dings.  . There’s the Mayor with a lemon stick. There he is in leprechaun hat.  If Baltimore was the city of neighborhoods, he was the ring master
Where is that kind of politicking today? Don’t tell me,  time is better spent on strategic placement like Obama visiting Facebook’s headquarters.Compare the luke warm to snarky coverage he got  to the New York Times front page  photo of Obama running up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to surprise tourists, after he managed to strike a deal to avoid a government shutdown.

We need to get back to the human level. That’s why Schaefer even though after beating back Mikulski’s bill was able to see the human potential that she represented and he eventually came around to seeing Fells Point and Federal Hill as Baltimore assets. That insight shaped what Baltimore is today. We could have easily been in Newark’s position even if we live with in a two tier society that David Simon’s Wire so deftly depicts.  Schaefer’s  was a vision of classic slow cooking. It took two developer’s renaissance after Fells Point and Federal Hill was saved in 1970s for other neighborhoods to emerge nearly 30 years later as go-to waterfront spots like Canton, Locus Point. That’s why on a Monday afternoon, people in Fells Point cheered when the hearse slowed to a standstill.

The Mayor's hearse stops by Fells Point, Baltimore

They wanted so badly for someone to pop out once again with that kind of audacious, infectious belief in  Baltimore.

22
May
09

Father and Son play their cajun hearts out

Loren and Jim Pettijohn find that cajun music fit in with the streets of Fells Point, probably because Fells Point could easily fit along the levees of the great Delta City of New Orleans. In the early 1800s, Fells Point grabbed the world’s attention for perfecting the Clipper Ship and privateering (legalized plundering of the high seas) only to incite the wrath of the British, which led to the War of 1812. Later the Point helped bring the Chesapeake famous seafood industry to the nation with its canneries and railroad link up in the late 19th Century. And like New Orleans, Fells Point is heavy with bars. But unlike New Orleans, Baltimore’s street music scene is pretty pathetic. These guys may be the best we got to offer. I met them several months ago and swore I’d come back upon a second spotting with a camera. Finally I got my chance.

The music seems to hit all walks of people in a city that tends to segregate itself. Recently Fells Point has emerged as one of the more integrated night scenes in the city. True many of the bars are still white, but the street is increasingly mixed, something that couldn’t be said just two years ago.
The Pettijohns have a way of engaging people. If you watch carefully you can see that Loren’s a gifted guitar picker, particularly between songs when he’s flying up and down the neck. And as a father, I’m sure he’s enjoying these  moments with his son at a time when parental ties get frayed. It shows in their music which    grafts so well with Fells Point  lost seafaring history —  more vibe than fact on the street, but a powerful thing vibe at that. People  pull dollars from their pockets, break out in dance, stop and stare. Sometimes the poorest of folk are the most generous myself went home and grabbed my guitar and harmonica and played with them. It’s that pumping accordion and how it hits the night. That’s why to watch Jim nimble fingers I was shocked to find that he has MS.  He talks sometimes how his fingers get  numb and it seems he lashes out  against his ailment with his fierce play. Stay tuned for more dispatches.

13
Jan
09

Eastside Residents Face Displacement, Live among Demolition and Unfulfilled Promises

Biotech Developers Hampered by Economy

“Any  Construction that is happening right now is an accomplishment,” Andy Frank, Baltimore’s Deputy Mayor

Donald Grisham pleads for the powerful Biotech Developers to keep their word to residents facing condemnation

Donald Grisham pleads for the Biotech Developers to keep their word to residents facing condemnation

 

 

 

The Chairman of the East Baltimore Biotech Development Corporation, played the moment well. After absorbing more than an hour of scathing annotates from residents facing forcible removal from their neighborhoods to make way for a new utopian bio-tech village, Joseph Haskins stood up.

This moment has been two year in the making for these residents who bothered to organize themselves into an activist group that lobbies for rights and benefits from the developers of this $1.8 Billion biotech. While they have met with EBDI officials, they have never made their case before the board, composed of city officials ranging from the Deputy Mayor to the Director of Housing. 

EBDI, a quasi-non profit, is creating blocks of shiny new homes, cafes stores and big biotech buildings with nice jobs in what is now a bulldozed neighborhood that served as the bleak set for The Wire. Remember Hampsterdam — That was East Baltimore, some of which has been slated or is already demolished and all at the

at the footsteps of Johns Hopkins Hospital

On this Monday night, people had relayed tales of  abuse they received from otherwise esteemed organization, ranging from patronizing dismissals to unsafe demolition practices.

 

“EBDI has not done anything for this community, I don’t care what it looks like, they haven’t done anything,” said one woman, who said she had her day care service shut down because of demolition around her. The biotech lab is not going to benefit us. Be real. It’s not going to benefit us. I’ve said time and time again  50 people in this community will not get a job in that lab.”

Despite the acrimony the room went quiet when Haskins faced the crowd much a way as a prodigal son faces his congregation.

Haskins, the president of Harbor Bank, an organization started in response to racist treatment from banking world, spoke with humility and disdain, but asked to delay major questions being put to him.  Instead he asked for a follow up meeting so he can investigate what he heard that night.

“I’m insulted,” he said. “I’m embarrassed and    hurt by the comments I heard. It was never the intension to make this community a victim.” The whole thing was tactics. Residents wondered whether Haskins was actually surprised by tales of   ineptitude by EBDI and its director, Jack Shannon.

Maybe Haskins was just delaying making commitments in the same fashion that EBDI has employed for years as residents live limbo as resident John Hammonds put it, in condemned homes wondering what’s to become of them.

Meanwhile they watch new streets being paved, street signs being install even their cars mistakenly towed. And shining new building come up that would fit in perfectly with Bethesda, some suburban PUD, but still looks odd popping up in the middle of the old brick.

But there were also tactics being played by on the residents, who as the group Save Middle East Action Coalition, had honed questions about why the project had found money even in this sickly economy to build senior housing, work force housing, two biotech buildings, but somehow haven’t been able to find funding for residents looking to stay in a promising community that potentially could give this teetering city an economic shove into a whole new vibrancy.

 

True Baltimore’s waterfront bristled with development – in fact a mini city arouses out of parking lots – now known as Inner Harbor East. But all these growth hinged on real estate, condo sales, grocery stores, hostels, potential jobs yes, but not an industry that can carry a city.

But the biotech community planned on 80 acres north of Johns Hopkins is seen as “game changer” — High-end jobs working on projects that if successful could transform medicine and the world. After all who could questions the location, — next to Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the 2nd highest recipient of federal research funding, which oddly had no nearby facilities where professors could take their hot ideas and incubate them for the market place.

The only thing that stood in their way were the residents and renters who slugged it out for decades in a drug invested rowhouse blocks known as Zombie Land.

The thinking was that anything was better-battered blocks of abandonment. Even without the murder and drugs, just drive through the main arteries is to view a stunning display of dilapidation. It’s not just the boarded up houses that fly by like picket fences. But it’s the stores, which now also have the plywood over the windows. It’s the patchwork of pastel painted brick with rotting ornate porches standing slanted on a hill, standing conjuring questions about its heyday. They seem so stark that it hold a kinds of deteriorating beauty – the kind of thing that attracts good photographers who put these works in galleries — an elitist point, but still powerful.

So city planners must have been surprised when they saw maybe twenty people walking a tenuous picket line, asking for “a house for a house,” back in 2002. Indeed, despite the brutal crime, there were residents living there, homeowners, who have told me numerous times, that yes there are hoodlums around, but they knew them

Many loved that fact they were so central located to all points downtown Baltimore and have their network of friends. Being relocated was essentially an exile.

Suddenly networks of childcare, neighbors looking after kids, rides to the store, trusting eyes watching their house, local knowledge of the neighborhood would vanish as they tried to figure out a new life.

For the next eight years, there became an intense haggling process. In stepped The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which became board members, and helped sweetened the relocation package adding counseling for two years after the move as well as millions to ensure that residents find decent replacement housing in what surely would be more expensive neighborhoods.

Although Casey has a policy of fighting gentrification, looking for organizations nationwide that help empower locals in distressed neighborhoods, The Foundation’s President Doug Nelson saw an opportunity of being a player within a massive development.

As he put it, “harness the economic engine.”

That is instead of only helping an organization try to fight the environs, Casey could help guide the change, and most importantly ensure that the residents would benefit.

 

Already more than 800 families have been moved out by 2005 with much wrangling over benefits from residential group known as SMEAC. Save Middle East Action Coalition, is a name that harkens back to when residents first organization to actually save the area. But this moved happen when Real Estate was booming and it just seemed as easy as plugging in numbers and the developers will line. Bio Technology was not seen as a business venture, but some kind of civic project, the way people build hospitals. But much has changed for the folks in phase II. Real Estate is tough to sell around the Harbor and developers can’t even think of building affordable housing for a biotech park that still hasn’t started bustling with jobs.

According to an Article in the Baltimore Business Journal, the developers Forest City Science + Technology Group, out of Cleveland won’t move on the second of six biotech buildings until they secure tenants first and that could take two years.

And yet the residents not only watch as other construction projects move ahead with no news on replacement housing, but they live amongst debris, rumbling equipment and at the very least isolated as blocks around them have been surreally clear cut with bulldozers. In their wake are massive patches of grass under glowing under security lights.

 

“Many of these people who left their homes and you supplemented their housing for 47 months or whatever, they will become homeless. This bothers me, because I think of myself as being retired as one step from being homeless as I see all these people, making all this money loosing their homes,” said Joseph Gladden, a resident of East Baltimore for 67 years.

After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Andy Frank, who sits on the board, said, “I think the time of talk has ended.”

He said the trouble is EBDI’s capabilities have been hamstrung by an economy where, “any construction that is happening right now is an accomplishment.”

Still EBDI needs to be clear with the residents what actually can be delivered.

The problem is the residents have heard this talk before.

 

 

 

24
Aug
08

Martha Cooper’s Westside Beat

A friend distributes a flyer about a murdered friend. Around the corner we come across kids playing in the alley. This is how the horrific and the innocent idyllic come jumbled together out here in Southwest Baltimore

A woman distributes a flyer about a murdered friend. Around the corner we come across kids playing in the alley. This is how the horrific and the innocent idyllic come jumbled together out here in Southwest Baltimore

 

For decades Marty Cooper has been the eminent documentarian in the graffiti scene, being one of the first photographers to treat the New York subway chasers as artists back in the 70s. Her book Subway Art is considered a primer in the graf scene not to mention her subsequent books on New York. But for the last three years, Cooper has led a kind of second life as a trundling woman padding around with her cameras on one of Baltimore’s more dangerous, desolalate and strangely escentric neighborhoods known as SoWeBo (Southwest Baltimore). 

     Having grown up in Baltimore in a  leafy northwest neighborhood of Mount Washington, Cooper had returned to the city to document a neighborhood in transition, a neighborhood before it was discovered by investors and real estate gamblers, rehabbed and repackaged for its quaint genteelly charmed.  Marty was looking for was what she missed when she first went to New York and chased bombed trains, missing the strange oddness of those places like the Bronx, poor, abandoned by determined to create their own life and culture. It was no accident that the graf and the hip hop scene came from  these streets.  

 As far as she is concerned she missed her opportunity with New York’s borroughs, but she figured Baltimore now that’s a city despite its gold rush development still has neighborhoods out in the hinterlands of poverty.

The neighborhood that she picked actually got much drug dealing exposure in David Simon’s The Corner, the book, and then TV show and surely must have informed his follow-up The Wire.

But Cooper is interested in much more than well trodden prism of cops verses drug dealers, which Simon defty smashes by the way. Cooper takes a much more anthropological look, casting the broadest net as possible with her cameras. To do this Cooper bought a small house as a base of operation in the neighborhood and every three weeks or so she would wade out down the street, wearing her gear and just take pictures.  Then she would come back giving out photos establishing herself as the picture lady, someone who could be trusted.

The neighborhood that she picked was extronarily rich in architecture as it was marred in decay. Southwest Baltimore around Hollins Market and Union Square had been the neighborhood of Baltimore’s still most famous arthor H.L. Mencken. (“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.“—- Mencken) The homes were regally built, three story affairs with all kinds of architectural garnishings like 2nd level porches with daylight windows, rooms that sort of  jut out of the rowhome like jewels. They had large bricked patios and gardens that backed up to Alley houses, small tiny two story rowhouses where the servants lived. These houses were also occupied by Irish railroad workers who had jobs at the nearby B & O rail yards and roundhouse just blocks south. In this way, poor and the well off lived side by side. It was Baltimore Gothic at its best, a funky aside to New Orlean’s more astir Garden District.  But the wealthy folk long left the city by mid-20th Century and the Baltimore’s decline just beat these kinds of neighborhood. But left in its wake were both poor white and black, making this swath one of the more racially mixed sections in a city which can  segregate like the best of ’em.

      To make the rounds with Marty Cooper cutting through alleys down once robust mercantile streets like Baltimore Street now mostly shuttered is to see the complex poor world invisible and left to rot by the healthy society just  blocks away adding towers to the skyline.  Just to the east stands University of Maryland’s burgeoning bio-tech park, the tourist trap that is Camden Yards Stadium and the glittering Inner Harbor. Before us stood a mixture of abject poverty and a kind of crabgrass beauty of humanity. It’s like steeping beyond a well tended garden into  the wilds. We came upon a privately made homeless park with an art piece constructed with spickets for showers for people who shun the conventional shelters. We met a woman giving out a flyer of her missing friend, murdered and in the morgue. She wanted to  warn other women of a suspected killer on the lose. We visited a second floor mosque that operated as a fast food joint on the first floor. We met a one man steel fabricator working out an ancient gas station. We came across kids and old  people sitting on steps more relaxed than any vacationer paying top dollar for their Victorian porches in Cape May N.J. There was the ever present sense of danger. Drug dealing is still a key industry and there were some harden faces walking about. I couldn’t help but recall  the time I was held up at gun point ten years ago just up the street and we were just  trying to get some pizza and some sweet potato fries.   

 

Although crabs are crazy expensive, between $45 to $70, they are beloved and a must have.
Although crabs are crazy expensive, between $45 to $70, they are beloved and a must have.

 

   Many that we met that day, Marty had previously photographed. She would hand them photographs, People studied them realizing these weren’t exactly snapshots.

Marty  approached them warmly  as if a former teacher happy to stumble onto former students. She asked if she could take their picture and without the fanfare of a photgrapher adjusting apature, checking the light meter etc …. she merely snapped a picture. But the results are devilishly more astute than what is found in the family album.  Marty somehow gets her people to relax, giving true smiles or just forget her altogether to  capture them digging into their lives. 

 

 

Her pictures become even more poignant when contrasted with what’s being covered in the mainstream press. Even noble exercises in journalism found in the New York Times, such as articles by Dan Barry for example, don’t capture the odd grafting of beauty and sadness or sometimes just painful, sometimes just inspiring, like those kids just going at those crabs, a Baltimore delacacy that now costs a fortune — A dozen crabs can run between $45 to $70. Notice the style of the Obama supporter, how blue his shirt and cap is, how the white of his undershirt matches the piping of his cap. So put together out there among the streets of peeling brick and boarded up windows. Yes there is a sense of resilency out here but there’s also a morbid foreshadowing.

 

 

Best Friends

Best Friends