Thoughts About Baltimore’s So-Called Authenticity

When we were growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, the chain of White Flight and neighborhood succession was nearing its end. We always figured we’d just get a house somewhere in Southeast Baltimore and live in it and that would be that. But it didn’t work out that way. By the time we were of age to start thinking about where to live, where to settle, most of Southeast Baltimore was already well out of our humble price range. When the Ottobar moved uptown in 2001 the Chop and virtually everyone else like us who’d grown up here and been hanging around at the Loft or Memory Lane or the Marble Bar or wherever read the writing on the wall loud and clear: East Baltimore was fun, but it’s not for us anymore. A lot of natives who had been scattered throughout the Fell’s/Canton/Patterson Park area picked up and moved north. The reason Hampden is such a ‘hot’ area now has a lot to do with the Ottobar’s move and the people who followed it; much more than anyone seems to realize. It didn’t take that long before a lot of us quit hanging out downtown altogether. Nothing there left to miss.

Businesses moved north too: Reptilian Records, Minas Gallery, Dangerously Delicious Pies (before they were successful enough to move back), one of the yoga studios maybe? There were a few others but it’s not important. The ones that didn’t move closed: Chat St. and Stikky Fingers, Funk’s. The Chop personally had a hand in opening up the Charm City Art Space in 2002 and lived nearby. The Oranges Band referenced this migration phenomenon lyrically on 2005’s The World and Everything In It. It kinda sucked to get pushed out of our neighborhoods but we got used to it. There was plenty of room uptown. (And yes we are using rock and roll as a proxy for working class values here: There weren’t any startup founders in line when we went to see Zeke at the 8×10.)

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That was when the Millennials started coming.

That shift uptown coincided exactly with a 92% rise in central Baltimore’s Millennial population. We don’t want to get too caught up in numbers here. The point is, sometimes generalizations are real. The Millennials came. They came in numbers and they came in as outsiders. They look overwhelmingly like the woman in the photo at that link with her dog at Rash Field. They will keep coming- and they will keep moving into the White L and only the White L. As we say, they’re guided by history and developers and investors are eager to please them.

This notion of Baltimore, the white one, as a second-tier city full of hometown folks with funny accents- that’s over. It’s fucking done. It’s the past. Everyone would do well to understand that Baltimore survived deindustrialization much better than most Rust-Belt cities and it is today the kind of place where institutions expand and where businesses and artists want to come and locate and hire and create. It’s a place that outsiders want to move to and they’ve proven that they’re willing to pay a premium to do it.

Today’s Internet driven media landscape is a strange thing. First you’ve got The Trend Piece. Then you’ve got the News Item About the Trend Piece. Then you’ve got what you’re reading now, which is the blog post about the news item about the trend piece.

The Trend Piece is a CS Monitor story on Baltimore which appeared a little more than two months ago on February 1 called The New Cool Cities for Millennials. It’s pretty typical of the parachute-in, follow the narrative Millennial trend piece, Wire reference and all. There’s not a single line of it that isn’t complete and utter horseshit. When the writer says “the town that boosters call Charm City, and that others have dubbed Bodymore, Murderland. He doesn’t fucking get it that Charm City is South Caroline Street and Bodymore is North Caroline and never the twain shall meet. They’re two separate places and there’s zero chance his subject was going to end up on North Caroline. After all, She’s not with JHMI and even if she were…

Then of course he reaches out to Kirby Fowler, who’s okay we guess but he’s a professional booster. It’s his whole job to polish up and sell with a smile the third-owner Ford Taurus that is Baltimore City living.

But what really has us shaking our head and not knowing whether to laugh or cry is when he talks to the people who live in Hampden who just go on and on about how great Bazaar is and then say:

“There was something about the overall tone of D.C. versus Baltimore – the feel of Baltimore just worked better for me,” [new arrival Jen Horton] says. “There was something about it – I can’t even articulate it – but every time I was there I just felt this energy. I loved the art scene. I loved the culture.”

It was also far cheaper. Trading a squeezed apartment in Washington for a full house in funky Hampden, Horton says she has saved $600 to $700 a month in rent and utilities. But she also insists the price tag was only a small part of her decision. It was about finding a place that felt like somewhere: a community of which she could be a part, a place that she wouldn’t just step into to be carried along, like San Francisco or New York, but a place where her life and actions mattered. “I don’t think I had a true sense of place until I moved here,”

She doesn’t use the A-word, but what else could she be getting at? She wouldn’t know the authentic Baltimore if it burst open and drowned her like a goddamn broken water main. Here’s someone coming from North Carolina, on a career track in DC saying that kitschy galleries and whimsical taxidermy give her life meaning. For Christ’s sake! Talk about trying to ‘curate your experience!’ It doesn’t get any less authentic.

But the next guy is even worse:

“A lot of my decision to come here had to do with being in a city where I knew I could make some positive impact,” says Sean Wen, a 25-year-old former Goldman Sachs employee from Texas, who is now another Venture for America fellow working in Baltimore. “Miami and New Orleans – for me those cities were already well established; they already had very positive connotations with them. I wanted Detroit or Baltimore. I thought these cities weren’t getting enough love.”

For one, we don’t think you can make a difference. Or to put it more accurately we don’t think you will. We’re sure you’ve got good intentions and you’ll give it your best shot but your Goldman Sachs ass is way out of your element here. You’re going to live in Canton and work around the harbor and talk a lot about Park Heights but once you actually go ‘into the field’ you’re going to burn out pretty fucking quick when you realize that apps and data don’t help poor people. Teachers burn out. Social workers burn out. Cops burn out. Nonprofit employees burn out. A lot of very well intentioned people burn out very quickly in this city. If Lionel Foster and Rodney Foxworth are burning out, brother, you don’t stand a fucking chance.

We’re sure you’ve been told your whole life that you’re special and you’ll make a difference but you’re not fucking special. Baltimore and Detroit don’t want your love. Your fickle bullshit disinvested love. Where will you be when you’re 40? In a V2V house you rehabbed yourself or in Sugar Land, Texas? Or maybe Howard County. More from Wen:

“The pair has been trying food all over the city – good eats, Wen says, is one of his markers of a desirable urban area – and they both approve of the Stackhouse’s laid-back vibe, exposed brick walls, and a menu heavy on burgers (but locally sourced, premium Black Angus ones).”

Really? trying food all over the city? Name one place you went that was outside the White L. Wen does get one thing right though. When he says “I’m a quaint dude.” we have no choice but to agree with him.

Then there’s Matt Pinto, who graduated from Hopkins and asserts that the Census Building was a crack den and that 26th Street was the worst street in Baltimore. He’s another who would claim Authenticity from the campus of Hopkins or a swanky rehabbed building with its own gated parking lot. We lived at 26th and Charles while the Census Building was empty, before he was in college. His fear-bubble outsider do-gooder perspective is just flat out wrong and taking him at his word is bad, lazy writing that will pass for truth almost everywhere outside Baltimore.

But the one sort-of redeeming feature about the piece is the ‘related’ Reuters video stuck on at the bottom which comes out and says what we alluded to in a previous post: that when it comes time to start a family all these Millennials will high-tail it to the suburbs because a safe yard for your kid to play in is more important than being able to walk to a goddamned coffee shop. And if they have bought property they’ll be damned sure they sell it or rent it at a profit, to people exactly like the people they used to be 6-10 years ago.


And then there’s the News Item About the Trend Piece. It appeared in the BBJ under the headline Baltimore’s ‘authenticity’ is why Millennials are flocking here, Christian Science Monitor finds and was penned by Kevin Litten who is usually a pretty good reporter covering development in a straightlaced fashion. This piece is a steaming pile though. It begins:

“Kickball games, monthly bike rides and a “vibrant bar and restaurant scene” are examples of why millennials are flocking to Baltimore,

So he starts with the word ‘vibrant’ one day before CP’s Baynard Woods writes a very bold piece about that exact word that should be included along with the Lowes and Domino’s coupons when you change your address to Baltimore at the post office. (Even if we disagree that drug pushers and street preachers should be welcomed and embraced.)

‘Authentic’ is another one of these terms that is ‘fraught.’ Oh you live in a former Catholic school and work in a former cannery? You know what’s authentic about that? Not a goddamned thing. The authentic experience was sweating your ass off seeking seasonal work and pulling overtime in a cannery to send your kid Catholic school to get his ass whipped by nuns then coming home and sitting on the stoop because you couldn’t afford an air conditioner. To extend the last post’s Baltimore/Chicago comparison here’s a few words from Studs Terkel’s 1964 book Working which a lot of Baltimore’s new arrivals would do well to sit down and read. These are the words of a steelworker:

“I work so damn hard I want to come home and sit down and lay around. But I gotta get it out. I want to be able to turn around to somebody and say ‘Hey, fuck you.’ you know? The guy sitting next to me on the bus too. Cause all day I wanted to tell my foreman to go fuck himself but I can’t.

So I find a guy in a tavern.To tell him that. And he tells me too. I’ve been in brawls. He’s punching me and I’m punching him, because we actually want to punch someone else. The most that’ll happen is the bartender will ban us from the tavern. But at work you lose your job.”

“Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors, you can’t sock anybody in Washington, you can’t sock a system.”

“A mule. An old mule, that’s the way I feel. [Shows black and blue marks on arms and legs, burns.] You know what I heard from more than one guy at work? ‘If my kid wants to work in a factory I’m going to kick the hell out of him.I want my kid to be an effete snob.'”

So fuck you Sean Wen. Fuck you Jen Horton and Matt Pinto. We’ve got to say it to somebody and we’re saying it to you. You get the privilege of being an effete snob. Enjoy it, but understand it is what it is. You don’t get to have that and any claim to Authenticity.

The Authenticity of white working class Baltimore in the last two centuries mostly sucked and you wouldn’t have wanted any part of it. There was definitely no grass fed angus and crab deviled eggs at the Four Fucking Seasons in that authentic Baltimore to which developers and newcomers so lovingly harken back. And there’s no grass fed angus outside the White L in present day Baltimore either- there’s just Lake Trout and Chicken Box.

Litten’s news item then does a full on Huffington Post style rehashing of the CSM piece, while sneaking in a backlink to one of his earlier pieces about retrofitting luxury apartments into industrial spaces in which he uses and abuses the term Authenticity with wild abandon.

We don’t say this to pat ourselves on the back: we say it because it’s true- We are the authentic Baltimore. We sail out of the harbor on big ships. It’s a job that’s dirty and dangerous. Our father spent most of his career patching roofs and replacing floors and shit. His father went from WWII to Bethlehem Steel- even dirtier and more dangerous. We helped found one of those funky little art galleries before Station North was even an Arts District. What do we get for our trouble? We get priced out of neighborhoods entirely by the Sean Wen’s and the Jen Hortons of the world and their far-flung landlords.

Everything in Baltimore is a trade-off. Absolutely everything. Nothing good ever happened here without accepting something else in exchange. For the last 14 years North Baltimore has had it pretty good. It’s been a place where locals could thrive without sacrificing too much. Without undue interference from outsiders and yuppies things improved in North Baltimore without actually gentrifying. The trade offs were worth it.

But with every French restaurant that opens in Hampden (There are three if you count De Kleine Duvel and we do), with every valet parking stand on the avenue, with the large projects slated for Remington and with every giant art space that gets renovated along North Avenue we’re seeing shades of the great Ottobar migration. With every 23-year old know-it-all outsider quoted in the news we’re seeing the writing all over the wall again: this isn’t for you. Pay up or get the fuck out. Don’t let the Authenticity hit you on the way out the door.