Collecting Baltimore's history good, bad and ugly


June 20, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

One day in Baltimore's Northwestern District Court, we had front row seats for the marijuana parade: two dozen men and women charged with possession of cannibis sativa (or cannabis indica; I couldn't tell which from where I was sitting). Two of the defendants had been nabbed after a police officer caught wind of a familiar aroma while strolling under the balcony of an apartment.

A few months later, when composing an affectionate essay titled, "What is Baltimore?" I mentioned, among many other regularly occurring phenomena in the old palatinate, "the smell of a burning controlled dangerous substance wafting off the balcony of a garden apartment in Pimlico."

"Why did you have to include that?" the snarling son of a city cop asked.

He was indignant, though he had appreciated the rest of the essay, which was mostly a litany of things that put the charm in Charm City. "What is Baltimore?" the essay asked, then answered: "It's the smell of H&S Bakery. It's crabbing off the Potee Street Bridge. It's a whole family stopping at Big Al's Pit Beef on Pulaski Highway to sample the 'burnt ends.' It's the sound of a trash can going through a front picture window of a South Baltimore rowhouse on a Friday night."

"That's another thing," the cop's kid said. "Why did you have to include that?"

Because, I explained (as his father apparently hadn't), that was an actual occurrence representative of what happens from time to time in city neighborhoods. Just about any day in any District Court, there is testimony about neighborhood bickering that turns acrimonious, if not violent. Sue me for being a sourpuss. It happens.

I understood the guy's complaint. People prefer thecheerful view of things. As we observe the life and times of this community, or reflect on its history, we naturally find the filtered view appealing. Most people still lean toward a mainstream version of history and local culture that fits neatly into the frame of their own experience and orientation. Some people -- and I'm not knocking this -- have in mind a picture of Baltimore, circa 1956, and, despite knowing how much life here has changed since then, they ignore anything ugly or unsettling that might crash through the field of vision.

Trying to make the picture complete -- to include the good, the bad and the ugly -- has been the noble undertaking of contemporary historians. Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes and Linda Zeidman successfully challenged the mainstream histories of Baltimore, which were mostly about railroads and white men, with "The Baltimore Book." Published three years ago, it was a gritty "people's history," focusing on the story of immigrants, the labor movement, blacks and women.

One of the most popular exhibits the Maryland Historical Society ever had was Fred Wilson's "Mining The Museum." The brilliant installation artist used the society's own collections to show how the African-American experience in Maryland had been neglected and, more importantly, how the grand sweep of textbook American history frequently whitewashed its sinister subplots. Most memorable were the slave shackles placed in a case with a fancy silver service, and the Victorian chairs united with a whipping post. Wilson's exhibit included busts of famous white men on pedestals next to pedestals with the names of black heroes (such as Frederick Douglass) but no busts.

Some people think this is a way of "deconstructing" history; I think it expands not only our knowledge of the past but our true understanding of it, and the popularity of "Mining The Museum" showed that expansive history is appreciated.

And so I wonder if curators at The City Life Museums are interested in encouraging "complete history" in their new project, "Collecting Baltimore." The project invites Baltimoreans to contribute items that, beyond personal meanings, symbolize local culture or offer a small piece of the municipal jigsaw puzzle. It's a kind of grand show-and-tell, all 'bout Bawlmer.

"Museums are so often the repositories of the official view," snapped a friend who frowned at the prospect of another "perky-cheerful" exhibit of Baltimoriana. He then provided a list of "true Baltimore museum pieces" that, he believed, would make the picture complete:

"Pink slips from Beth Steel or Westinghouse; taped recollections of how it felt to get one, how it felt to give one. . . . Paperwork associated with a criminal case slowly lost or frittered away by the juvenile justice system; taped recollections of agonized and forgotten victims. . . . Crime scene photographs from the hundreds of drug-related homicides committed in this city over the last two decades. . . . A bottle of August heat. . . . An 'Unauthorized Vehicles Will Be Towed to Greenwood's Garage' sign."

Not a pretty picture. Some might consider it a twisted view. And yet, I happen to know that the man who suggested those things is not a bitter person, not mean in spirit. He's not a Baltimore basher, not a burned-out city brat living in suburban exile. He happens to live in Baltimore. Actually, he lives with Baltimore, and cares about it greatly. He thinks the picture presented in a museum should be complete, and he dares people throughout the entire metropolitan area to contribute to the mural -- the good, the bad, the ugly.

Interesting idea. I welcome contributions to the next installmenof "What is Baltimore?" Write to This Just In, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

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