Tag Archives: Baltimore

Broad Strokes

A few years after college, in multiples of 40, I took every fifth grader in the five boroughs to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, men sleeping on grates, Betsy Ross’s House, the Bourse (for lunch), the Mint (the U.S. Mint, not the Franklin Mint, which no longer seems to exist in three-dimensional space), Franklin Court,* and the Franklin Institute.

There was only One Child Left Behind out of thousands. It was the chaperones’ fault. Anyway, he was still there when we went back for him.

Over the three decades since, I’ve dropped in regularly. The Third (now Sixth) City hasn’t become second-nature to me the way that New York, D.C., and Baltimore have, but you might say I feel a brotherly love.

One of my sisters lived there and a cousin still does. That’s enough of a familial connection for me to detest the “With Love, Philadelphia XOXO” advertising (“Con Cariño” in the Spanish version) that for several years has been disfiguring billboards, magazines, and social media.

Visit Philadelphia—also the source of the Uwishunu blog and the slogan “Get Your History Straight and Your Nightlife Gay”—is very proud of the so-called love letter campaign, but it seems particularly unsuited to a town with…maybe not style, but taste. A noisy marriage of insincerity with ugliness, it reflects, I would guess, the tourism leadership’s impatience with the undemonstrative civility of the place (under which lurks, just to make things interesting, a certain amount of Mummerania, Balboa-tude, and other native traits).

A product of the to-thine-own-self-be-true school of tourism (my actual school of tourism was the New School for Social Research, as it was then known), I’m not big on reconstructive surgery. Whether you are Queens or Queensland, the less you affect to attract visitors and import to impress them, the better off you are in the long run, economically, socially, and—yes—competitively.

Those of you hanging on to your zip line for dear life, raise one hand (after checking that your harness is secure).

When I considered writing about Broad Street, Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts, as a case history of an operation that was successful though the patient died, I hesitated. Do I know Philadelphia well enough to make this call? (Maybe not.) And by doing so would I be harming a city I care about? (Not much of a worry given that my readership is a small subset of my Facebook friends.)

Then, Googling around, I found something called Liberty City Press, “an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural News Network whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Jewish Exponent, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.”

Here’s an excerpt from a July 15 editorial in Liberty City Press, “Wherefore Art Now Part 1,” with the subhead “Black clouds along the Avenue of the Arts”:

The avenue, which runs from Broad to Lombard, hosts the Prince Music Theater, Kimmel Center, Merriam Theatre, Wilma Theater and Suzanne Roberts Theatre. And there can be little doubt that [former mayor and later governor Ed] Rendell’s vision transformed South Broad Street, perhaps not into the Great White Way of Philly, but into a catalyst for residential development in center city. The question now is whether the Avenue of the Arts is sustainable. Recent signs of trouble among the art institutions that anchor it make this question one city leaders need to address sooner rather than later.

We are not talking about the 900-pound gorillas on the avenue — the Kimmel Center and its tenant, the Philadelphia Orchestra. They are to the Philadelphia art scene what the school district has become to our education scene: unsustainable economic models perennially in need of greater public largesse. They have become too big too [sic] fail.

No, we are talking about the small theaters that transformed South Broad from the Academy of Music to, well, an Avenue of the Arts: one at the northern end, the Prince Music Theater, the other at the southern tip, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.

(Part 2, published July 22, has the subhead “History Museums Sucking Wind on Independence Mall.” You think I’m provocative?)

To put the situation in the terms of last week’s post, “Edited Bunker in New Haven,” since 1993, when the nonprofit Avenue of the Arts, Inc., was created, several of Philadelphia’s cultural attractions have been extracted from their former neural pathways and transplanted to one—South Broad Street—that, despite a major upgrade, seems too weak at present to support them in their enlarged state.

Remember symbiosis? The plan, I’m sure, was (a) for the cultural organizations to benefit the Avenue by occupying existing buildings or building new ones on designated sites to which their current audiences would now be drawn, (b) for the Avenue to benefit the cultural organizations by raising their profiles and putting each near others with similar current and target audiences, and (c) for all to benefit from the economic activity generated as their audiences expand and “Live. Learn. Work. Shop. Play. Explore.”

It’s one thing, and by no means a sure thing, for a cultural organization to follow its dream (sometimes it’s the dream of a deep-pocketed board member). Examples of death by overreach are easy to point to in my own Baltimore backyard: the City Life Museums (d. 1997), Opera Vivente (d. 2011), the Contemporary Museum (d. 2012, reb. 2013).

(It usually takes much more than overreach to bring down a major institution such as, recently, New York City Opera, San Jose Rep, and the Corcoran.)

But what if an institution is the victim not of its own ambition, but of the ambition of a city’s political, corporate, and philanthropic leaders? In Baltimore, two nonprofit theater companies have recently relocated and expanded their operations to serve as cultural components of economic development plans.

Everyman Theatre went from 170 seats in an Off-Broadway-type space in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District on North Charles Street (just north of Mount Vernon—see “Table at the Stable,” two posts ago) to 250 seats in a long-vacant 1910 vaudeville-burlesque-movie theatre and sometime parking garage in the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District west of downtown. (Nice how they didn’t have to replace the E on the façade, which originally stood for Empire. And smart to increase the seating by half instead of tenfold.)

On September 20, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, formerly based a dozen miles from Baltimore in Ellicott City, will hold a grand opening gala in its new downtown home, the 1885 Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company, most recently a nightclub. (From a Baltimore Sun article on the Velvet Rope club: In February of last year [2010], some 300 people tried to storm inside after a promoter oversold a Yo Gotti concert, attracting some 50 police officers and a helicopter to control the scene.)

I wish them both the best of luck, but if they do not survive, perhaps they should be considered collateral damage of Baltimore’s—and Maryland’s, in the case of Everyman—destination-building.

Definition review: A destination is place with a name connected to images in the minds of prospective visitors, accessible 24-7, and more than the sum of the attractions—gated experiences—it contains.

Philadelphia is a destination, and within it are others: Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, South Street, Old City, Northern Liberties (Not For Tourists guide: Northern Liberties might be getting too hip for its own good–and it doesn’t help when people call it “NoLibs.” The post-hip yuppie types are moving in and rents are going up up up. Don’t let that scare you, though–it’s still a great ‘hood.)

But is an avenue of cultural bunkers, University of the Arts buildings, and hotels a destination? Don’t get me wrong. Downtown Philly is looking great these days, much better than most of downtown Baltimore, but I’d rather hang out on Chestnut Street than South Broad.

Most of us wouldn’t butt-surf from one performance to another even right next door on the same day (Tyler Perry at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, October 4, then Brandi Carlile in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad, at 8). And there aren’t so many simultaneous performances on the Avenue of the Arts that you can decide what to go to when you get there.

(Will TKTS fold up when we’ve all got an Apple Watch and Google Glass? Will physical space become optional, as it is for the Franklin Mint?)

One of Philadelphia’s art museums, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is on the Avenue of the Arts, but on North Broad, on the other side of City Hall. Rather than go there, let’s plan to head west next week on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—a bunker line-up every bit the equal of South Broad—for a date with a goddess.

* See post No. 9, “America: It’s Like Britain, Only With Buttons.”


Table at the Stable

Monday is Rib Night at the Mount Vernon Stable, but I’m more often there on Tuesday for Steak Night, the guy—brown hair, beard gone white—way up in the window.

As I chew my 12-ounce New York strip ($13.95 with two sides), my eyes pull into the Parking Management, Inc., surface lot where numbers 906, 908, 910, and 912 North Charles Street used to be. What the heck could succeed there, assuming you could get it built? An Apple store? A high-end cheese shop?

Charles is Baltimore’s 42nd Street, “where the underworld can meet the elite.” The elite skipped out on Mount Vernon when grandpa was a boy, but ships of the city’s cultural fleet—the Peabody Institute, the Walters Art Museum, Center Stage, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Maryland Historical Society—are anchored near the Washington Monument (Robert Mills, 1815), shorter and less severe than the D.C. obelisk, swaddled these days in pre-centennial scaffolding.

And the Maryland Club and a few more of that type (“In the Squash and Fitness area All White attire must be worn.”) continue to occupy their splendid piles (Mount Vernon Club, Tiffany-Fisher House, architect unknown, 1842; Engineers Club, Garrett-Jacobs Mansion, Stanford White, 1884, with additions by John Russell Pope; Maryland Club, Josias Pennington, 1892).

The name Mount Vernon is a tribute to the taciturn General, standing larger than life on a 178-foot Doric column (Melville gives the monument a shout-out in Moby Dick), which will reopen for knee therapy next year. Till then, please have a seat in one of the four rectangular squares and take in the babies, dogs, music students, Walters employees, Circulator riders, vagrants (only a few), wedding parties, and television crews (Veep and House of Cards).

It’s a Dupont Circular scene (see “And Abide Quietly in Your Home” from three weeks ago) with a similar history: the neighborhood declined and became hippified, then turned into the city’s gayborhood (my word of the month), less so now. But unlike Dupont Circle, Mount Vernon has defied gentrification. Though many are glad that the fight to restrict building heights in this historic district was successful, most would welcome more investment and a rise in property values.

I was ecstatic to find that rents were so much lower than in D.C. Entire rowhouses in Mount Vernon can be purchased with what you’d spend on a one-bedroom condo in Dupont (if I only had savings or credit or…). But as much as it’s Charm City at its charmiest, Mount Vernon is on economic life support.

We just came through the Great Recession, I know. Things were much worse in the ’90s, I know. People have been saying Mount Vernon’s a lost cause for 50 years, I know. This is Baltimore, Hon…BELIEVE.

The Stable (run by Lorraine Yagjian, whose husband Peter died in 2009) is planning some kind of 30th anniversary bash in October. It seems to be doing okay, thanks to a reasonably priced, something-for-everyone menu and late hours on weekends (though not as late as Never on Sunday, a few doors down, where the wee hours are a show in themselves). With its décor of architectural castoffs and theater props (Royal Tenenbaum: “Where’s my javelina?”), it is an island of Mount Vernon Stability.

Family-owned restaurants rarely last more than one generation. Some of the most prized in Mount Vernon and other neighborhoods have thrown in the cloth napkin over the past 30 years (see Sun restaurant critic Richard Gorelick’s “Nostalgic Baltimore restaurants then and now”). But there are still plenty, including a few destination restaurants—not how I define ‘destination,’ as you know—such as Qayum (brother of Hamid) Karzai’s Helmand, 806 North Charles, always packed.

The PMI lot I stare into from my table at the Stable would be bad enough if it were the only one, but it’s not. Looking left, there’s a giant one on the corner of Charles and Read, next to the Helmand. Out of sight to the right is another monster (about 50 spots plus 10 for Zipcars) on the corner of Eager.*

In fact, these are tiny principalities in the 67-year-old PMI empire, the ruler of which is Kingdon Gould, III, the great-great-grandson of robber baron Jay Gould. (I encourage you to read all about KGIII’s astounding family on Wikipedia.)

There have been signs—white, hand-lettered public notices—that PMI wants to build on the corner lots, but I haven’t heard any asphalt cracking. Besides, there are other parking barons in Mount Vernon. 926 North Charles is a gap in a corniced row of six (now five) houses, the driveway for a Central Parking expanse that faces a long fence on Cathedral Street.

Next to the Stable is a lot run by Jetset Parking with about 25 spots. People who work for the nonprofits in the green-tinged Latrobe Building (Edward H. Glidden, 1912, read the plaque)—at nine stories a Mount Vernon skyscraper—park there during the day. But at night, in all kinds of weather, a guy stands out in Charles Street flagging down the nightclub crowd, who can park until 5 a.m. or sobriety, whichever comes first, for the price of a spinach pie at Never’s.

Time to download SimCity: Mount Vernon Edition, young landlords!

Choice A: Maintain and pay taxes on several buildings well over 100 years old while renting to undercapitalized retailers and college students.
Choice B: Tear them down (if they let you), pave over, pay as little as possible in property taxes, lobby against higher parking-fee taxes, and count your money as the cars roll in.**
Choice C: Tear them down (if they let you) and borrow millions to build something, Lord knows what, that could conceivably provide an after-tax return on your investment.
Choice D: Unload them and get out of [insert hater’s nickname for Baltimore] before it’s too late.
Choice E: Sit tight because eventually the City or some other sucker will pay a king’s ransom to be rid of you.

Thanks for playing. See you next week, when we’ll visit an “edited bunker” (please review last week’s post, “Arch Bunker in Dublin”) on the Charles Street of New Haven: Chapel Street.

* On the other three corners of this bizarre intersection are Club Hippo, Grand Central and Sappho’s, and the Maryland Club, which, by the way, has flattened roughly half of the Stable side of the block for its own gated parking.
** The PMI lot at Charles and Eager charges a flat rate of $11.50 after 5 p.m. $11.50 x 50 spaces x 2 nights x 52 weeks = $59,800 per year just from the weekend clubbers.

And Abide Quietly in Your Home

This week’s post is about keeping women indoors. Its title comes from the Koran (33:33). Because it is addressed to the wives of the Prophet, some feel the verse should not be used to justify restrictions on Muslim women in general, which they oppose. But I have a more concrete example for you: Lady Baltimore.

Weighing in at 2,750 pounds, with a worn face and two prosthetic arms, she is still simply marble-ous. Antonio Capellano, said to be a student of Canova, created the statue for Maximilian Godefroy’s Battle Monument, commemorating the repulsion of the British by forces under Major General Samuel Smith of the Maryland Militia 200 years ago this September.

Our heroine was hoisted up in 1822 and the monument soon became the symbol of Baltimore, depicted on the city’s official seal (as shown on my Calvert Yellow recycling bin). You may have noticed that this is the big year for the Star-Spangled Banner, the lyrics of which were written by Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key as he proudly hailed the flag at the twilight’s last gleaming o’er the ramparts of Fort McHenry, and so on.

Brought indoors last fall, Lady B. now abides quietly at the Maryland Historical Society. A cement replica presides over her former traffic island (look both ways). Meanwhile, abiding quietly at the Acropolis Museum in Athens are five of the six caryatids from the Erechtheion porch, which went on display last June after extensive cleaning and conservation (one pedestal has been left empty for the sixth, who remains in captivity at the British Museum).

There is some question as to whether the caryatids represent priestesses of Artemis, who danced with baskets on their heads, or the women of Caryae, enslaved by the Athenians because the town sided with the Persians. Be that as it may, my point is that outside is one thing and inside another.

To see the original Lady Baltimore will cost you nine dollars; to see the original caryatids, five euros (you can try to cheer up the one in the British Museum for nothing, but they’re asking 16 pounds 50 for the BP exhibition: Ming, opening 18 September). As those of you who read my first post (“It’s Free!”) know, I’m in favor of charging admission. But what we have here is the distinction between a destination and an attraction.

A destination is a place with a name connected to images in the minds of prospective visitors: Baltimore, Fort McHenry, Athens, the Acropolis. A destination is free to occupy, 24-7 (these days the Acropolis is an exception, but the term would apply to the neighborhoods around it, such as Plaka and Monastiraki), and more than the sum of the attractions it contains.

An attraction is a gated experience: Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the Maryland Historical Society, the Acropolis Museum, the British Museum.

Let’s visit some other marble women and a marble man. In the center of D.C.’s Dupont Circle is a fountain, erected in 1920 as a monument to Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont (1803-1865). The du Pont family wasn’t satisfied with Launt Thompson’s statue, installed in 1884, so they shipped it to Wilmington in 1917 and hired architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French, co-creators of the Lincoln Memorial, to hammer out something more memorable.

In fact, it’s a masterpiece. Water spills at three points from a huge shallow bowl. Around the bowl’s cylindrical base are figures, eight feet tall, representing the arts of navigation: Sea, a gowned female with an agitated gull on her shoulder; Sky, a nude female with billowing hair, a globe pressed to her breast; and Wind, a nude male grasping a conch, his head in profile, his privates concealed by a sail.

I lived near Dupont Circle from 2006 to 2008, but I never heard anyone call it the Fruit Loop. It’s greatest gay days were past, though it is still home to the Capital Pride Parade and the High Heel Race. Lambda Rising, the historic bookstore with branches in Baltimore, Rehoboth Beach, and Norfolk, closed for good in 2010. The new century has been hard on all bookstores, but Lambda Rising also faced Acceptance Rising (good) and Rents Rising (mixed).

Back then, District Hardware, also a bike shop, and The Third Day garden store were attached to the Blaine Mansion (John Fraser, 1881). Now in those renovated spaces are Pizza Paradiso, a local chain that originated in Dupont in 1991 (so I really can’t knock em, though personally I’m an Alberto’s guy), and Le Pain Quotidien (LPQ, KFC, CVS, pas de différence). The Patterson Mansion (Stanford White, 1903), home of the Washington Club since 1951, is being converted into luxury studio apartments. I doubt they will have Murphy beds like mine did.

However, it is still possible to look past the gentry and the millennials to appreciate the beauty of the architecture, the landscaping, and the fountain, and engage in people-watching the equal of New York’s.

As you sit by the fountain or on the circle of benches, humans from all over the country and the world (and their dogs) cross the Circle—where Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, New Hampshire Avenue, P Street, and 19th Street intersect—on 50 different routes. It’s a fashion show of power suits, designer dresses, saris, dashikis, headscarves, spandex, sleeve tattoos, T-shirts, and rags.

You could spend an entire day and night there (not unknown), watching joggers, commuters, lunchers, activists, panhandlers, and clubbers—both Cosmos Club members and, at places like Kabin, their wild grandchildren.

It’s a true destination, complete with major hotels, an express bus connection to New York, and a Sunday farmer’s market. But what about the attractions it contains?

First and foremost, there’s the Phillips Collection, which calls itself “America’s first museum of modern art.” In 1921, Jones and Laughlin Steel heir Duncan Phillips opened a public gallery in his home. The mansion—about two blocks from the Circle and one block from the Metro stop (north exit)—became a museum after his family moved out in 1930.

In addition to the permanent collection (great) and special exhibitions (some of the best), the Phillips has presented a Sunday chamber music series in the mansion’s small and gorgeous music room for nearly 75 years. For the hip younger set (Forbes recently named Washington, D.C., America’s Coolest City. Don’t make me laugh.), there’s Phillips After 5 on the first Thursday of the month. If you’re free on September 4, we can “Celebrate the art of slowing down. Sip cocktails, savor local pickled delicacies and learn about the brining craft.”

(Does this sound like I’m brown-nosing the Phillips? Well, I find their pricing ridiculously complex and their email blasts inane. Is that better?)

The Phillips Collection and eight other museums are members of the Dupont-Kalorama Museums Consortium, but some are a ways from Dupont and the most prominent after the Phillips, the Textile Museum, is moving to George Washington University this fall (its S Street building, two connected mansions, was listed at $22 million, but no one seems to have snapped it up yet). The consortium holds a Museum Walk Weekend in June. There are also a good number of art galleries in the neighborhood, which stay open late on the first Friday of the month.

The last movie theater closed in January of 2008, the DC Improv comedy club is a short walk down Connecticut Avenue, and the Keegan Theatre (“Powerful productions of classic and modern plays and musicals, offered to the community at affordable, neighborhood prices.”), founded in 1996, is raising $4 million to renovate its Church Street building.

But though I lived in the vicinity, I never heard of the Keegan Theatre until I did some Googling today. A destination is not a theme park, but to a certain extent it needs to think like one, planning, marketing, building infrastructure, and providing services like a single entity.

This “desti-traction” approach, and the drawbacks of what’s been called bunker or fortress tourism, are next week’s topics. Until then, get out of the house!

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.”

It’s Free!

A couple weeks back I was sitting in the front seat of a Bolt Bus from Baltimore to New York. At the end of the line of passengers getting out at the rest stop was a young man, apparently Hasidic, who paused to ask if I was Jewish. When I said yes, he introduced himself and asked if I would like to put on tefillin (please Google for details). This ritual not being part of my religious practice, I declined. One of his companions then piped up: “It’s free!”

Marketers learn that the word “free” is magical. Free sample! Free gift! Free trial! Buy one, get one free! In the case of museums, concerts, and theatre, admission fees can be a barrier. Subsidized and discounted admission make a difference, but free admission makes a world of difference. And many of us now enjoy virtually unlimited access to cultural materials online, encountering few paywalls.

According to Wikipedia (case in point), the source of the “information wants to be free” credo was a remark by Stewart Brand to Steve Wozniak at the first Hackers Conference in 1984:

“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Setting aside the larger issues of intellectual property, copyright, and the destruction of business models in journalism, publishing, and entertainment, what I would like to do here is distinguish between information and experience in the cultural sphere.

If you believe as I do (and as I think Walter Benjamin did and John Berger did not) that there is a difference between seeing a reproduction of a painting and the painting itself, this can become the foundation of your museum’s marketing strategy: Free online, ticketed in person. Fully exploit online (and traditional) media to communicate the value of your museum’s in-person experience, then charge for it. The same goes for concerts and plays.

Of course, many cultural organizations already operate this way. But Baltimore’s two major art museums, for example, eliminated general admission fees in 2006 with support from city and county government. This was a bold decision which expanded public access. As a marketer, however, I am a true believer in ticketing and membership/subscription programs as signifiers of value and audience cultivation tools.

In my next post, I will talk about attracting non-traditional audiences, a worthy goal that in my view has muddled the question of to-charge-or-not-to-charge. One of my objections to “It’s Free!” is that it casts too wide a net. Marketing is matchmaking: offering defined groups of people exactly what they want–experiences for which they are pleased, even grateful to pay–and building relationships.

Perhaps the goal of my Bolt Bus acquaintances was simply to have more Jews obeying more commandments. But if I was really inclined to become more traditionally observant, I would have been perfectly willing to invest time and money in doing so. What they should have asked was if I could help with their website and social media…