The first Baltimore City Fair in 1970 was a novel experience that attempted to duplicate the excitement of a state fair in an urban context. It succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.
In retrospect, that fair is now seen as a watershed event that marked Baltimore's turnaround from a decaying smokestack city into a forward-looking metropolis. Above all, the event changed Baltimoreans' feelings about their hometown, instilling optimism and unity of vision at a low ebb in the city's history after the 1968 riots.
Over the past two decades, Baltimore's Inner Harbor has changed beyond recognition. So have such renovated neighborhoods as Fells Point and Federal Hill, among others. In that rebirth, the spirit of the first City Fair played a crucial role. (The fact that vast areas of the city deteriorated in the meantime only underscores the complexity of urban problems. After all, the City Fair itself began a steady decline after its phenomenal successes.)
As the City Fair organization is now folding its tent, it is worth asking to what extent this seminal institution's death is a symptom of recurring malaise of passivity and nonparticipation in Baltimore's civic life.
It is true the City Fair ultimately failed because it was too successful. It spawned a multitude of rival celebrations, ranging from ethnic festivals to Artscape. Annual neighborhood fairs and house tours have become commonplace. Even urban garden tours attract good crowds.
DTC At the same time, several established citywide and neighborhood organizations are experiencing a visible and serious shortage of new blood and ideas. The City Fair itself was operated for all these years by a small group of believers, many of them die-hard veterans of the early fairs.
Americans are a mobile people, physically and mentally. We keep trekking from one neighborhood and metropolitan area to another. Some give up on urban surroundings altogether and go to the wilderness in their search for Walden Pond. In terms of ideas and causes, people also change. Those who were daring urban pioneers in their 20s may not be as willing to deal with such continuing city challenges as trash and rats when they get older, not to mention the unceasing demands of that old house they once renovated.
The initial City Fair was so powerful because it brought Baltimore's neighborhoods together under one tent, enabling like-minded people to network with one another and feel they were not alone in trying to keep their communities going. Today, the City Fair itself does not leave an unfillable void. But if its spirit of togetherness is lost, Baltimore's problems will be much more difficult to solve.