THE KEEPERS and polishers of Baltimore's image have to be glowing over Tony Hiss' long-awaited article on the Monumental City in the April 29 New Yorker.
In one of those endless essays in which the magazine specializes -- it winds for 23 pages among cartoons and ads -- Hiss is essentially optimistic about the city's future, and that runs counter to what one hears these days among the cognoscenti. Indeed, Hiss declares Baltimore is entering its third great "flowering" -- a time when it takes on "new forms to be able to nurture people in new ways." (The first flowering, according to Hiss, was the decade of rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1904. The second was the downtown renaissance of the last quarter-century.)
The third? It is "only now beginning to come into being and has no single location, but you can begin to see some of its outlines in roundabout ways." Hiss isn't awfully clear what that flowering consists of, but two of its physical elements are a completed light-rail system and the long-discussed linking of the city's parks and stream valleys into a single green web. The human element of that flowering comes from Mayor Schmoke, who spoke at a recent "2020 Vision Conference" of a city where justice prevails and doors of opportunity are open to "the weakest and most disadvantaged among us. That's not just a vision of a city; that's a vision of a city in grace." (The mayor may have launched a new motto for Baltimore, having found "The City That Reads" somewhat incongruous.)
This is not to say Hiss spares Baltimore. There is ample description of the "rot beneath the glitter" and especially of the city's shameful history of racial discrimination, which the author says "distorted the community . . . and fragmented its memories for so many years that until very recently the practice could easily have been mistaken for one of the permanent, unbreakable features of the city." Hiss spent an afternoon with Evelyn Patterson Burrell, the black poet and author of "Weep No More," who told him how "the two Baltimores" have kept separate chronicles of the city for centuries, "something most of the whites . . . have been too blind to understand."
Old-timers will love Hiss' article, too. He glows over the Washington Monument, the Peabody Library, the children's department at the Pratt, the Baltimore Zoo (but hardly a word about the National Aquarium or Maryland Science Center) and the Woman's Industrial Exchange, a "lunchtime showcase of the simple." When exchange waitresses fuss over you, Hiss says, "you can still feel all the center-of-everything specialness of a trip downtown."
There's also lots of quirkiness in the Hess article, titled "Annals of Place: Reinventing Baltimore," and information you probably didn't know: that the zoo has a successful breeding program for lion-tailed macaques, for example, that you can catch trout in the Jones Falls and that some black Baltimoreans can give you the street address of people alive today who have George Washington's blood in their veins. (George had no legitimate children, only children carried by his black slaves, according to Hiss.) Speaking of George, Hiss also tells you what he's really up to on the Washington Monument: surrendering his commission as commander of the Continental Army.
There's a whoops in the Hiss article. The author tells us the Belvedere Hotel is "still welcoming guests to huge suites, meticulously clean."
And there's an inexplicable obsession. Hiss cannot abide the city's one-way streets with traffic lights timed so that drivers can move several blocks without stopping. (He blames it all on the late Henry Barnes, the traffic engineer who devised the system 35 years ago.) As though he has never been in a cab on the numerous one-way streets in Manhattan, Hiss bewails the "burst of cars and trucks" that results from the one-way pattern. He claims it tends to "unravel . . . the urban fabric."
It reminds me of the Ruxton matron who would never venture downtown after Barnes completed his handiwork. It wasn't the one-way streets that bothered her, she said. It was the fact that the only street she knew, Charles, was one-way "the wrong direction."