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"Dear Miss Kirby"
An Essay by Gilbert Sandler, MLA '67

A n overdue letter to my third-grade teacher: You taught us, "Pride goeth before a fall." You had it wrong.

Gilbert Sandler, MLA '67, a longtime Baltimore Sun columnist, is the author of Small Town Baltimore: An Album of Memories (Johns Hopkins University Press).

You probably don't remember me; I was in your class in 1932 at Louisa May Alcott Elementary. It was a big class, maybe 40 of us, and I wasn't exactly an outstanding student. But I remember you.

Your no-nonsense manner struck (lasting!) fear into our young and fragile psyches. You had rules, like, if the homework wasn't in the basket on your desk by the time the 8:30 bell rang, we could forget it — a zero went into your book. No exceptions. And our "grammar!" Remember, "Never end a sentence with a preposition"?

But if we students didn't love you, our parents did. They liked it that you were "strict," and they equated "strictness" with learning. But what did they know?

Another thing I remember, you taught by aphorism: "He is a fool that cannot conceal his wisdom," "A penny saved is a penny earned," and "Pride goeth" — goeth, not goes — "before a fall." Over a lifetime, I have pretty much come to accept the first two, but the last, watching how the world works, leads me to tell you (73 years later!) you were dead wrong. The truth is, Miss Kirby, you have given "pride" — rational, sensible pride (as opposed to foolish pride) — a bad name.

I wasn't long out of your class when I realized how misleading your definition of pride was. And I should have seen it then; in those Depression years, in the very city where you were teaching, Baltimore's city fathers were busy keeping the city's head above water, and, having pretty much accomplished that, would go on with even more drama to expand and enrich our quality of life. History shows that the most and the best of all of that forward motion was fueled by a combustible mix of economics, politics — and pride.

It all got by you, Miss Kirby, because your view of pride was a dark one; it assumed that man was essentially evil, that he would prosper, but with his prosperity he would take on an arrogance, which would lead him to overconfidence, which would tempt him to take one risk too many. Hence, the fall. But that worldview was narrow, and at odds with the larger, brighter world I came to know as I moved along in life. Pride, far from leading to a city's fall, has led continuously to the city's rise.

Here's what I mean. On the Monday afternoon of February 8, 1904, Baltimoreans looked out on a landscape of despair — a graveyard of smoldering ashes and charred timber, 140 acres of its business center laid waste by a fire that had roared through the long night, and by afternoon had burned itself out at last. For the city fathers, the task of rebuilding was daunting, particularly since there wasn't much money. But a study of newspaper accounts makes apparent that what the city lacked in financial resources it made up in civic pride — pride that proved to be a crackling fuse that made things happen.

That same afternoon, with the fire out but smoke still rising from it, Mayor Robert McLane issued a statement in the Baltimore News: "To suppose the spirit of our people will not rise to the occasion is to suppose that our people are not genuine Americans. We shall make the fire of 1904 a landmark not of decline but of progress." Following up the next day: "As head of this municipality I cannot help but feel gratified by the sympathy and the offers of practical assistance which have been tendered us. To them I have in general terms replied, 'Baltimore will take care of its own, thank you.'" And in a report from the Citizens Relief Committee, this: "In view of the enormous losses, the remarkably small showing of only $23,000 disbursed [toward relief] proves that the virility and self respect of Baltimore's citizens cannot easily be matched, and their spirit of independence and capacity for self help calls forth, even in this progressive age, wonder and admiration."

How about that Miss Kirby? Two years after the fire, on September 10, 1906, the Baltimore-American was able to record that the city was immersed in pride of progress: "The conflagration destroyed all hope and courage, and the two combined have risen from the ashes to a new and greater city. Even the casual visitor will be compelled to admit that the Monumental City contains all that is possessed by any other city in the country. One of the great disasters of modern time has been converted into a blessing."

Skip ahead 40 years. Immediately following World War II, it became apparent that the city was dying from within. The rush to the suburbs, crime, deterioration of the schools, the popularity of the automobile, the draw of the shopping centers — forces in confluence made Baltimore's downtown a ghost town and many city neighborhoods a forwarding address. Enter the city fathers, who in 1955 formed the Greater Baltimore Committee to address the problem.

In the 1970s, Mayor Schaefer charged a group of Baltimore ad execs: "Come up with something to make the city feel proud!" Hence: the "charm city" phenomenon. From there on out, the city rhapsodized about its white steps, hot steamed crabs and cold beer, the Preakness, Mencken, museums, Babe Ruth, and raw bars. In its study of comparable problems and solutions, the GBC was drawn to envy Pittsburgh; that city's leadership had been successful in turning abandoned industrial districts into its much celebrated Golden Triangle. Armed with the Pittsburgh story, Baltimore's planners carried to the planning conferences the community's sense of pride: "If Pittsburgh can do it, so can Baltimore. Our ambition," a GBC report made clear, "is to create a community of healthy neighborhoods where people can be proud" — are you listening Miss Kirby? — "to live and raise families. In the first urban renewal project for downtown Baltimore, Downtown accepts the challenge of tomorrow with a bold venture." Walter Sondheim, long a moving force within the planning community then and reflecting today on the grand enterprise that it was, said, "To develop the project — to raise the money, create the plan and implement it — called for heavy support from the community. To get it, we appealed to the community's appreciation of the economics and its sense of pride."

The community had given the planners an agenda: We love the place, see that we keep it. Whatever else the city planners took into the conference rooms, their pride was showing.

In the late 1960s Baltimore had what one of its leaders thought to be a problem of spirit, a loss of pride in the city they called home. They had good reason; the race riots of 1968 had left the citizen psyche shattered, sorely in need of a tonic to make it feel good. Leaders conceived of an idea designed to provide that spirit-lifting tonic — to make Baltimoreans proud of Baltimore, again. Their idea was to stage a City Fair — never mind that it had never been done anywhere in the country before. The city that could do it first would do itself proud.

And so it was that on September 27, 1970, 10,000 people jammed into the Charles Plaza — and Baltimore's and America's first City Fair. They saw for themselves the coming together of neighbors and neighborhoods . . . and more. "Participants could feel an upsurge of communal pride, in that there could be so much life and good humor and creativity flourishing in Baltimore," wrote the Sun. "The fair was an act of faith that paid off handsomely."

In the 1970s, Mayor William Donald Schaefer was impatient with the city's lack of recognition for its history, its amenities, its recent accomplishments. "I'm worried about this city's poor image," he charged a group of Baltimore ad execs. "Come up with something to make the city feel proud!" And so they did: "Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight." Hence: the "Charm City" phenomenon. From there on out, the city rhapsodized about its white steps, hot steamed crabs and cold beer, the Preakness, Mencken, museums, Babe Ruth, and raw bars.

If the slogan did not convince the world that Baltimore was indeed "Charm City," it certainly convinced Schaefer, who immediately got his staff churning on an idea that we know today as the "Baltimore is Best" phenomenon. The hype was everywhere. If you didn't believe Baltimore was best before, you were apt to believe it later. The mayor had spun the grit of civic pride into the gold of belief.

Which morphed quite naturally into the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley. Granting, as it were, that not only is Baltimore the best, but Mayor O'Malley asked you to believe it, an ingenious use of pride to lift the spirit of the community, to make it feel good about itself, and no small matter, to support the administration that believes along with you. O'Malley ratcheted up civic pride a notch by putting out the message that "Baltimore is the greatest city in the world." How proud can you get?

It is 2005, and the city — flawed perhaps but showing no signs of giving up, and despite lingering problems — is showing strong signs of vigor and new life. The outward migration has slowed considerably; real estate values are soaring; the waterfront area is dotted with new hotels, upscale residences, and tourist attractions.

Beginning with the rebuilding after the Baltimore fire, through the development of the Charles Center and Inner Harbor complexes, into and through the bad days following the riots and flight to the suburbs, Baltimore's political leadership knew the uses of pride. Looking back on Baltimore's history, pride takes its place with money as the mother's milk of politics.

By the way, Miss Kirby, it was in those years, the early 1930s, that in all good faith you sought to teach us that pride goeth before a fall, that George Gershwin had Sportin' Life, in Porgy and Bess, sing "It ain't necessarily so." Watching the alchemy of pride creating civic luster where there had been none, and breaking another of your rules, I conclude with a cheer: "It ain't."

Return to The Seven Deadly Sins ... Lust | Gluttony | Envy | Pride | Sloth | Avarice | Anger
Return to September 2005 Table of Contents

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