Charmed to be in Charm City

Tired of hearing unthinking complaints, one resident decided to stick up for our town


July 18, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

What's a city stalwart to do?

Houses in certain parts of Baltimore sell within hours. Elsewhere, entire blocks are slated for demolition. There are those who miss a sense of community and history who are returning to the city. But not enough to replace thousands of residents who, according to gloomy numbers recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, are vacating the city.

If you're Carolyn O'Keefe, Western High School Class of '74 and urban champion, you start tooting the city's horn any way you can.

In 1998, O'Keefe, a 42-year-old free-lance marketing consultant who has helped develop the city's Police Athletic League and is chairwoman for the 1999 Maryland Historical Society Antiques Show, had a brainstorm: Why not produce "I t city life" bumper stickers and distribute them to everyone who, like her, realizes that the city's well-being is crucial to the well-being of the entire metropolitan area.

She and her husband, Kevin O'Keefe, managing director of Shandwick, a Baltimore-based public relations firm, went to town, as it were, and printed 3,000 bumper stickers. Today, it's hard to go a day without seeing one, whether on the JFX, parked at a grocery store, or downtown.

Where do you live?

I live in Guilford, so of course I love city life. Interesting neighbors, a vibrant community, beautiful surroundings and a terrific "village" for families. We walk to the Cathedral of the Incarnation, to pre-school and school.

What prompted you and your husband to create the stickers?

Playing "top this complaint" had become a habit that was distorting the truth about the city. People would be literally puzzled and stunned when I'd express satisfaction. After a moment or two recovering, they'd begin to chime in about their own pleasures. I wanted to have a bumper sticker simply to express my own feeling and was going to get a handful made in black and white, ordinary type, cheap as dirt. Kevin urged me to do it right and offered his firm to design, produce and pay for them.

Why are so many bumper stickers spotted in North Baltimore?

North Baltimore is so terrific that loads of people here actually seek these bumper stickers out. However, our distribution method has been strategically unstrategic. The main distribution method is me handing them out randomly. When someone smiles at a gas station, a grocery line or even at a stoplight, I hand them a bumper sticker.

What about the neighborhoods where it's tough to even endure city life, let alone love it?

I am not trivializing the city's real problems and hurting neighborhoods. However, there's a kind of a snobbish assumption that lower-income residents are uniformly miserable about their lives in the city. That these people are just stuck. I've been surprised to see something else. There are community struggles, but there are also kindred spirits, laughs, intelligence and good hearts.

What is your connection to Citizens Planning and Housing Association?

We've given a generous supply of bumper stickers to CPHA, a nonprofit group of neighborhood boosters that Kevin and I think do everything right. They're taking the "I t city life" message and using it on new, improved bumper stickers and a variety of other everyday things. They're creating a whole city ambassadors program, providing support to enthusiastic, vocal city dwellers.

What has been the impact of the bumper stickers?

There was already a pro-city movement beginning. I could feel it. ... This has simply given people a way to express their excitement about their lives in the city. Perhaps it's also given people pause to consider whether they really buy the negative talk. They look at their daily lives and realize: It's not inertia that keeps me here. I choose to live here. I like living here. In fact, come to think of it, I love it!

Does being so pro-city mean you are anti-county?

I hope not, because I have many friends in the counties who are among the most active supporters of the city. The bumper stickers aren't an argument for city life, they're meant to be a simple expression of our happiness here.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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