Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 17, 1997

What Makes Baltimore

Randolph Fillmore
Contributing Writer

For Frank Shivers, what makes Baltimore Bawlmer is the result of history, attitude and geography.

"Baltimore is neither north nor south. Neither big nor small," says Shivers, who is an instructor for the School of Continuing Studies non-credit Odyssey course What Makes Baltimore Baltimore? "It is a city that refuses to show off, yet often complains about being overlooked."

Shivers, who has authored the book Walking in Baltimore: An Intimate Guide to the Old City, has good things to say about preservation efforts in neighborhoods such as Fells Point and Bolton Hill, but he is disappointed that neither the private sector nor city government is adequately funding the city's 1797-1997 200th anniversary.

"The 1897 centennial celebration was underfunded as well," he says. "It was a bust."

Charles B. Duff, president of the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, who will talk to the Odyssey class on March 26 about Baltimore's buildings, streets and parks that have been built and rebuilt, says the ho-hum over the bicentennial can be explained.

"The celebrations in 1880 and 1929 to mark the anniversary of the city's founding as a community in 1729 were more successful than celebrations to mark the city's incorporation in 1797 as a legal entity," Duff says. "Baltimore was surveyed and divided into lots in 1729. Then, Baltimore was nothing more than Calvert Street and Baltimore Street. The water came up to what is now Water Street. No one knew that it was going to be a big city."

Baltimore became a big city because of the industrial strength it developed prior to the Civil War, says Matt Crenson, a professor of political science who, along with Robert Kargon, is co-teaching an undergraduate course called The City: A Multi-disciplined Approach. Crenson has had cities, including Baltimore, under the microscope for decades.

"With its economy tied to the industrial technology of the era, Baltimore's moment of triumph climaxed in about 1850," he says. Prior to 1850, Baltimore was one of our largest cities. The Civil War was a turning point. Most all the city's investments were in the south, and these investments were wiped out. The city has been in decline since. After 1865, the data shows that conservative businessmen didn't invest much in the city. Baltimore became a branch office town."

Not so, says Duff. "I think the Civil War was good for Baltimore. To rebuild, the destroyed South had to buy materials from Baltimore. They were too embittered to buy from the North."

Shivers, who suggests that Baltimore suffers from "a provincial modesty and provincial defensiveness," agrees that a history of being overlooked has added to Baltimore's Rodney Dangerfield complex, but that Baltimore, in some respects, likes being overlooked.

In that case, former Maryland governor and former Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer, who on April 9 will talk about "Reinventing Downtown," dragged Baltimore kicking and screaming into the limelight during his administration. Perhaps his greatest success was as the political architect of the city's Inner Harbor project; his harshest defeat was likely the loss of the Colts National Football League franchise to Indianapolis in 1984 and his inability as governor to attract an expansion franchise to the city because the NFL did not see Baltimore as a growing metropolis.

Now the Cleveland Browns have moved to the city, becoming the Ravens in 1996. And professional sports is certainly one hallmark of a major league town. But that isn't exactly what makes a city unique; the Ravens and the Orioles are not what makes Baltimore Bawlmer. Charles Duff says the answer lies in "row houses, among other things. Row houses allow people to live together at high density with the largest amount of privacy and freedom. We had the right materials to make brick. Row houses made of wood would have been a huge fire hazard. The gift of row homes was that they promised home ownership and direct access to the outdoors for all."

For Matt Crenson, what makes Baltimore Bawlmer is "the strength and independence of its neighborhoods."

What makes Baltimore Baltimore? "It's big but it feels small," Frank Shivers says. That makes it a comfortable place to live; a place where there is a sense of loyalty and friends endure."

Will The Idea
Of The City
Ever Fade?

"I don't think cities will ever become obsolete," says political science professor Matt Crenson. "Every time we predict they will, we discover some other use for them. There is something absolutely essential about cities. I've looked at cities more as vehicles than objects. They are a kind of prism in which every different kind of human activity--art, literature, politics, economics--gets concentrated."

For Crenson, the city, and Baltimore in particular, will continue to be a living entity, even in the face of sprawling suburbs and communication boons like the Internet.

"Cities are indispensable. Even an information intensive society depends on some kinds of interactions. You can't carry on everything over the Internet," Crenson emphasizes.

"Even when we try to escape to the suburbs, eventually they become urbanized. New cities are being created in new forms; some have been called 'edge cities'. There is still a density there. The one thing that's missing in these 'edge cities' is political engagement. Consequently, the idea of citizenship has evaporated. How can it be revitalized?" Crenson asks. "I haven't been able to answer that question."

Crenson says political engagement was a favorite recreational device of the 19th century. Political organizations sponsored rallies and picnics. The organizations were kept alive by "hard, material incentives."

"Today there are so many alternate forms of recreation. In the 19th century there was no TV, no professional sports; politics was the only game in town," Crenson says.

If citizenship ain't what it used to be, what will happen to cities?

"We're not going to be like Rome," Crenson says. "Grass will not grow in the streets. There will be new enterprises, new industries, some of which we haven't even dreamed of yet. Baltimore will become more attractive because the sun-belt cities will start to age. No one will want to rebuild them."

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage