Let me tell you about MY city

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

April 30, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

My Baltimore may use double negatives sometimes, but it don't never say "hon."

Sun columnist Michael Olesker is a great guy, a brilliant columnist, a colleague in the struggle and all that, but when he waxed poetic the other day about "hon" being the soul of this city, I had to cringe.

Some prankster had spray-painted "hon" on the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign just outside the city on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, so that the sign read, "Welcome to Baltimore, Hon."

It was a great prank, good for a laugh, and it's true that I've never heard that endearment as much as I have heard it here.

But does it capture the essence of this town? Uh, uh.

There is a lot more to Baltimore's soul than has been captured in the collected movies of John Waters and Barry Levinson.

You want to talk about hairstyles, John, what about the close shaves of the 1950s, the wave of the 1960s, the Afros and bushes of the 1970s, and the flat tops and fades of today?

What about the Temptations and James Brown and Aretha? What about dances like the Funky Four Corners and the Tighten-Up and the Cool Jerk? And, oh, what about the Slow Drag? Let's not even talk about the Slow Drag -- there might be children about!

My Baltimore sits on stoops on hot summer nights playing bid whist and double-deck pinochle -- and I mean playing it for keeps, playing it like there was money riding on the game.

My Baltimore is about churches. It is about great churches like Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal that figure prominently in this nation's history, and small storefront churches that seem to spring into being whenever some man or woman "gets the calling." (Poet Langston Hughes once called Baltimore "the City of Churches." How's that for a civic slogan?)

During the summer, people in my Baltimore set up stalls on practically every corner and sell snowballs -- shaved ice, flavored with some kind of syrupy goop.

In my Baltimore, people wait anxiously for the next performance of headline jazz at the Left Bank. Or they check out the music at places like the Sportsmen's Lounge and the New Haven Lounge.

My Baltimore got just as broken up when the Bullets basketball team fled down the parkway as when the Colts football team sneaked off to Indianapolis.

By the way, my Baltimore cheered when WMAR-TV lost its CBS affiliation many years ago, because the station seemingly would not broadcast a professional basketball game to save its soul. But then, of course, the current CBS affiliate, WBAL-TV, proved to be just as bad.

Seems like everybody in my Baltimore played with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at City or joshed with former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns at Dunbar.

Seems like everyone in my Baltimore remembers and reveres the courage and commitment of the Mitchell family, including Clarence 3rd and Michael, even though both men eventually went to prison on corruption convictions.

Half the old folks in this town seemed to have graduated from Douglass High and got their degree from Morgan State and all they can talk about are the good old days when the Morgan State Bears had a football team worthy of the name.

My Baltimore is about pride and prejudice: the pride that built up great institutions such as Provident Hospital, Morgan State, the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and the Druid Hill YMCA when prejudice closed all other doors "downtown."

My Baltimore also is about death and resurrection: the death of Provident Hospital, one of the nation's oldest black hospitals, and its resurrection as Liberty Medical Center; the rise and fall of Pennsylvania Avenue, and perhaps, someday soon, that corridor's rebirth.

We might be spoilsports but people in my Baltimore can't seem to forget the struggle and the pain: Nina Simone once sang, "Oh, Baltimore, ain't it hard just to live?"

How's that for a civic slogan? No, maybe not.

But we need a slogan that captures the totality of our city -- one that calls to mind the crab cakes and the lake trout. One that embraces the warmth of those waitresses who greet their customers as "hon" and the pain of those who weren't allowed to eat there; the nostalgia for the old Baltimore and the hope that the new one will be even better.

All things considered, Schmoke's "The city that reads" at least captures that hope.

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