Throwing Brickbats At Baltimore

BACK TRACKS

October 14, 1990|By Carleton Jones

Early visitors to Charm City usually gave it good reviews. Dickens, the novelist, loved our mint juleps. And foreigners from England and the Continent routinely expressed awe at the beauty of Baltimore women in the early 19th century.

The city was brand-new and fresh and it pleased most who visited it.

In the ensuing years the re-views have been good, bad and mixed. However, good reviews began again in earnest in the early 1980s after the National Geographic gave the town a full-dress, in-depth pictorial OK and other nation-al publications chimed in.

Those recent rosy notes, however, obscure the most interesting remarks made about Baltimore - the bleats uttered in this century by people who wandered through Crabtown and wondered why they were there - generally from the 1920s to the 1970s.

"Baltimore," wrote Paul Bowerman, a caller in 1923, has "a curious propensity to hover uncertainly between two extremes."

"This is a terrible town" wrote a Westerner who arrived by train at 5 a.m. in the spring of 1942 to take up a new job. It was a time when hotel rooms were unprocurable in most East Coast cities and the unfortunate visitor had to make his bow to the new boss without a single hour of sleep or a session to shave and wash up.

A year later came Baltimore's ultimate downer -- the famed "gritty city ditty."

This was a snappy piece of doggerel with unflattering lines like "Your winters are cold and your summers are hot; the air is so foul with mildew and rot" The piece ended with the indelicate proclamation: "Baltimore, you stink!"

The poem, rumored to be written about Charleston, S.C., and imported into town by transferred Westinghouse employees, was published in The Evening Sun. Local pride exploded: About 1,300 letters, most defending Charm City, were dumped on an editor's desk.

The gritty city ditty was a depressing wartime incident but Baltimore's moderate ways, its slow pace and its wildly unfashionable attachment to old neighborhoods continued to grate on visitors from jazzier climes.

There were repeated roastings of Baltimore in the daily and weekly press, including an especially pungent one by a Chicago daily, and a harangue by a sportswriter for the Orlando Sentinel that described the city as a place that "has to dog paddle furiously just to keep its head above water." This 1976 put-down also reported that in Baltimore, "janitors feel a job is well done if they clear an aisle through the garbage."

Among the many downers of the 1960s and 1970s that you simply did not mention to Mayor William Donald Schaefer was an office joke that described Baltimore as a place that combined "all the crisp, hard-driving, honest efficiency of southern Mississippi with the Warm, lazy, golden, Southern charm of northern Vermont."

Over the years, the city's psyche remained easily bruised. When Reggie Jackson, the great hitter for the Yankees, the Orioles and just about everybody else, was quoted as making a disparaging remark about Charm City, local egos bristled.

Philip Wylie, the 1950s social critic, made perhaps the most pungent quote of all outlanders. When asked for a comment on the town he said, "Your laundries are worse than the Soviet Union's."

(Nominations for historic street corners have started coming in. C. Winfield Robb of Cooksville writes that we should pay some attention to the street corners associated with Wells and McComas, legendary troopers who helped bring an end to the War of 1812 when they shot a Brit-ish general. Arthur Perkins at Frostburg agrees. The historic spot most appropriate seems to be Aisquith Square at East Monument and Gay streets, where a hoary memorial to the men still stands, Mr. Perkins relates.)

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