Over the past few weeks I have begun straying farther and farther from farm life, drifting back to Baltimore, my hometown and “The City that Reads.” That slogan was adopted in 1987 by former mayor Kurt Schmoke and was pasted to a great number of bus stop benches in an effort to revive slacking literacy levels. In fact Baltimore ranked above many cities in the early 2000’s in literacy, including NY City and L.A , despite its abysmal ranking in most matters related to education. Yet, when it comes to slogans it seems that Baltimore has seen some very shotty management, possibly even shottier than our 30 and 65 Orioles. In most big cities a slogan seems to be an afterthought but in Baltimore ,the city of the frequent identity crisis, we have seen a number of attempts to revamp our image often leading to a new phrase to define our town.
Although I wasn’t around to see Kurt Schmoke indoctrinate the phrase “The City that Reads” I do remember its appearance throughout the city, usually on benches or trashcans. The phrase was often edited by local youth ( excluding me for I was too young to wield a can of spray paint) to form new phrases, such as “The city that breeds” or “the city that bleeds” in reference to two of Baltimore’s better known problems.
Schmoke left office in 1999 leaving Mayor Martin O’Malley free to personalize the city sitting space. By the time I was in middle school I had watched “The City that Reads” turn into “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.” In hindsight I sincerely appreciate the effort on part of Mayor O’Malley. It was a valiant stab despite the country’s pigheaded recognition of Baltimore as solely the home of the television shows “The Wire” and “Homicide” and a incredibly short reference in the movie Wedding Crashers -“Football and Crabcakes, that’s what Maryland does“- that does little towards bettering Baltimore’s image. If we are to forever lie in the shadow of Philadelphia, Boston and New York, we might as well have slathered something overly ambitious on our park benches and hoped the rest of the country believed it.
We were only the greatest city in America for a few years before O’Malley decided that his message had failed and it was time to revamp the City’s image again. In 2006 O’Malley decided on the slogan “Get in on It” which enthusiastically means nothing. A few years earlier the city had launched a “Believe” campaign against drug related violence and although Believe was founded in an effort to combat crime it seemed a far better slogan for the city than “get in on it.” In fact, at that time, Believe was far more prominent and uplifting for we were never exactly sure what we were getting in on. Black and white “Believe” stickers can still be seen on lampposts and bumpers throughout the city.
Depending on the context Baltimore might be addressed with any number of formal or colloquial nicknames. If we are discussing the crime issue some unenlightened might call it “B-more Murderland” or “Bodymore.” (At one time Baltimore was called mobtown but since there hasn’t been a mob here for quite some time I do believe that nickname has gone out of style). Sometimes you might see “The city of firsts” although I’m a bit unsure what we were first at. Apparently the slogan ” Home of our National Anthem” is going to appear on a license plate, which says to me that we have now given up on our future and must now rely on previous achievements to justify our existence. Frequently a “B-more” bumper sticker will appear, a clever little nickname with a surprisingly encouraging duel meaning. Yes Baltimore, we should all strive to “Be more” because it’s right there in our name.
It’s interesting to look at the progression in these names. When I was little we were the city that reads, modest and driven. Then we became the greatest city in America which seemed to be a loud declaration of both our ambition and our inferiority. After that we decided to get in on it but never actually got in on anything. We believed for a little while and we still might. We enjoy being charm city, one of our only consistent nicknames, and detest being Bodymore because of David Simon and his hit HBO series.
The reason I decided to write this little post is because of our most recent city slogan, the one that arrived within the last few months , the one that cost the city $500,000 and the one that seems to be the ultimate declaration of defeat. The recent unveiling of “Find your happy place” as the cities slogan made me desire the days of a city that reads. Find your happy place is something we say to 7 year old children who have a sudden freak-out atop a ferris weel or young women birthing their first child. The only thing “Find your happy place” says to me about this city is that instead of feeding the poor or teaching the illiterate we should all just face the fact that our city is squalid and think of the time our dad took us fishing or the last time we could afford a vacation to Bermuda.
For me Baltimore will always be charm city because, amongst all the destruction, there are little charms that make the city wink. I wish we had just gone with that slogan and thrown the $500,000 it took to come up with “Find your happy place” at any of the other more pressing issues facing the city. The changes in slogans and nicknames seem to be appropriate for Baltimore with its immense pride and suppressed inferiority. Yet, realistically, its only the men and women at the top, the politicians, the ones deciding to spend the money on slogans, that feel inferior, under the shadow of our larger neighbors. In fact, the people that make Baltimore what it is appreciate Baltimore for its intricacies, the peculiarities that make a city great. So, next time a mayor decides that Baltimore needs a new label I say we put that money towards reviving Whartscape instead of a ten cent slogan with a five cent meaning.