From the Land of Pleasant Living

Those calming words are found on every gold-trimmed can of National Bohemian, the bubbly of Baltimore, known hereabouts as Natty Boh. Just yesterday I snagged a 12-pack at Eddie’s for a tenner. As Mister Boh, the one-eyed, moustachioed mascot of Charm City’s historic swill, never tires of saying: “Oh Boy, What a Beer!”

Soon after my arrival in 2008, I discovered that Baltimore was in many ways the land of pleasant living: inexpensive, walkable, historic, culturally rich. But though National Bohemian, first brewed in 1885, is identified with the city—Jerry Hoffberger’s ownership of the beer company and the Orioles overlapped from the 1950s through the 1970s, when National merged with Carling, of London, Ontario—the current Land of Pleasant Living is, appropriately, Eden, N.C. (and Albany, Ga.).

The cans say their contents is brewed by G. Heileman Brewing Co. of Milwaukee (Beertown), but who you gonna believe? A roll of stamped aluminum or Wikipedia?

Here, I’ll pour it out for you: After Heileman (of LaCrosse, not Milwaukee) bought Carling National, it was bought in turn by Stroh (of Detroit). Then Stroh was split between Pabst and Miller (Milwaukee), with Natty Boh becoming part of Pabst (formerly a Milwaukee brewery, but now a “virtual brewery” based in Los Angeles).

The Eden and Albany plants that Pabst commandeered for the production of National Bohemian are owned by MillerCoors, based in Chicago, a joint venture of SABMiller (the SAB stands for South African Breweries, if you must know), based in London, England, and Molson Coors, based in Denver and Montreal.

Globalization. Corporate consolidation. The same forces—plus deregulation—were at work in banking and utilities. None of Baltimore’s major banks is headquartered in Maryland. The return address on my phone bill is Carol Stream, Ill. (somewhere in Chicagoland), and I send the check to Atlanta. BGE stands for Baltimore Gas and Electric, part of Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, but Constellation was bought in 2012 by Exelon of Chicago (I still mail my monthly payment to Philadelphia, though).

The loss of corporate headquarters and, sometimes, production facilities—such as Black & Decker in 2010, bought by Stanley (of my home state of Connecticut), and Jos. A. Bank this year, bought by Men’s Wearhouse (Houston)—is painful for a city, both financially and psychologically. When out-of-towners snap up a big local company, the region’s tax base, employment rolls, and economic clout take a hit. For arts organizations, it usually means less corporate sponsorship money, fewer individual donors, and smaller audiences for ticketed programs.

Though neither was still based in the city itself, these were two of Baltimore’s historic success stories. S. Duncan Black, Alonzo G. Decker, and, yes, Joseph A. Bank were local boys who made good. Little Joey Bank’s grandpa, Charlie the tailor, got off the boat from Lithuania (the boat may not have actually sailed from Klaipeda) in 1866. Though Natty Boh was a few years away, he could have quaffed Bauernschmidt’s or Rost’s or Wiessner’s, among others.*

Charles Bank was one of more than a million immigrants who came to Baltimore in the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, when it was the country’s third busiest port of entry after New York and Boston. Immigrants on steamships from Liverpool and Bremen could settle in Baltimore or make a direct connection to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Locust Point and head west.

Germans were the majority in this wave, and Baltimore became an even more German city, with plenty of breweries and several German newspapers. But it didn’t last. In 1918, the daily Deutsche Correspondent newspaper merged with the Bayrische Wochenblatt to become the weekly Baltimore Correspondent.

Understandably, at the start of the Great War, 100 years ago, German-ness and German culture became very unpopular in this country (and embarrassing to German Americans, as Kurt Vonnegut has written, recalling his Indianapolis childhood). Then came Prohibition (bad for breweries) and not much later World War II.

The Correspondent, the last of Baltimore’s German newspapers, shut down in 1976. Schellhase’s Restaurant, home of H. L. Mencken’s Saturday Night Club, closed in 1980.** The equally legendary Haussner’s gave up der Geist in 1999, its splendid art collection auctioned off.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not mourning the withering away of German heritage experiences in particular, though I enjoy seeking them out. Will I see you at the 114th annual Maryland German Festival, July 26-27 at the Maryland State Fairgrounds?

I’m using Baltimore’s German American history as an example of the power of ethnicity, loosely defined, in the urban cultural context. In this case (but not in all—think of ethnic groups that appear to be on the rise in certain cities), it is a faded power, weakened over time by suburbanization and assimilation.

The whole time I’ve lived in Baltimore, until a few months ago, there was a billboard just north of the train station with Mister Boh proposing to the Utz potato chip girl (the perfect German couple). The tagline: Where Baltimore gets engaged.

But the shocking truth is that…
• National Bohemian is no longer brewed in Baltimore
• Utz Quality Foods of Hanover, Pa., was never a Baltimore company
• Smyth Jewelers (the client) is outside the city line in Timonium, and
• MGH (the ad agency) is too, in Owings Mills.

The pickings these days, German and otherwise, are slim. From the late 18th century until quite recently, Baltimore was one of the nation’s ten largest cities in population. As of 2013, it’s number 26. And it’s not only that the city has lost population to its suburbs. The Baltimore-Columbia-Towson Metropolitan Statistical Area comes in at a barely respectable 20.

Sometimes being the state capital helps (Baltimore is not, but neither are Dallas and New York; Boston is, but so are Hartford and Richmond). Sometimes being the state’s only large city helps (Baltimore is, and so are Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark, both Portlands, and Seattle). Sometimes not having a major city right next to you helps (Baltimore does, though the situation was formerly reversed, and so do Milwaukee, Newark, Providence, and Wilmington).

What Jane Jacobs called The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the title of a book now more than 50 years old, is a complex issue. I’m old enough to remember the often idealized downtowns of the 1960s, when they were still shopping meccas and the first redevelopment projects were new. In the 1970s and ’80s, I joined the crowds at the festival marketplaces and lived in neighborhoods making grassroots efforts to improve (and one where things were pretty bad and staying that way).

Since the ’90s, I’ve seen some downtowns and neighborhoods gentrify beyond recognition, others collapse beyond recognition, and a few slowly stabilize as an existing population strengthens economically (the example in The Death and Life was Boston’s North End, then considered a slum).

Most of the largest American cities are doing well. I don’t have a cure for the largest, most troubled ones. My primary concern is for the middle-sized ones: Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Providence, Richmond, and, yes, Beertown (which I’ve never visited).***

Cities cannot rely on courthouses, hospitals, and universities alone. When corporations are no longer headquartered downtown, or even in the metropolitan area; when all the desirable retail is in the suburbs and exurbs; when stable neighborhoods are islands surrounded by poverty; when neighborhoods are no longer being regenerated and the children and grandchildren of their former residents have forgotten them, how will the rich culture that cities nurture—high and popular, traditional and avant-garde—survive?

Will the arts be forced to abandon our middle-sized cities? And what would that mean for the future of the arts? (I know what it would mean for the future of the cities and it ain’t pretty.)

Let’s discuss over a few cold ones next week.

* For more on Baltimore beer, see Rob Kasper’s Baltimore Beer.
** There will be an exhibition of Schellhasiana at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library as part of this year’s Mencken Day on Saturday, September 13.
*** Title of a July 17, 2012, conference: “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity.”

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