Think outside the Dundalk box

April 23, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro

JOSEPH C. PALCZYNSKI wasn't even from Dundalk. But he holed up in Dundalk, and the tragic standoff didn't help the town's reputation.

Long the butt of drive-time humor, Dundalk could ill afford the media's prying eye at such a vulnerable moment. Swarmy on-air interviews with residents whose grammar was less than pristine and who appeared more worried about their homes than Palczynski's captives, reinforced the tired stereotype of Dundalk as a backwater full of yokels.

That's why "A Week in the Life of Dundalk," a photography show featuring more than 100 images of Dundalk's people, traditions and landmarks, "opens at a good time," says Pat Perry, the show's curator and a participant. "We could use the positive publicity."

The show, a collection of images shot by 22 photographers during last year's Fourth of July celebrations, captures a small town imbued with patriotism, a love of family and with strong ties to the water and steel industry.

Empty lawn chairs aligned along a parade route, a grizzled mill veteran, a local beauty queen -- in their own way these images perpetuate a different stereotype.

But that was the indirect goal of Jan Albert-Elliott who, as interim president of the Community College of Baltimore County at Dundalk, commissioned the show. She wanted Dundalk residents who viewed the exhibit "to be thrilled to see it," says Ms. Albert-Elliott, now senior director of extension centers for the Community Colleges of Baltimore County.

The upbeat photo show might help correct the "conflicted attitudes" harbored by many Dundalkians, Ms. Albert-Elliott suggests. "That was my hope, that some of the pride and some of the sturdiness of the community and the talent of the artists who work in that community [particularly] would come through."

Mr. Perry, as well, is conscious of esteem issues. "People here, especially the younger people, tend to have an inferiority complex," says Mr. Perry, manager of the college's media services department. "They're almost ashamed to admit that they're from here."

Dave Parlett, an exhibit participant and professional photographer who grew up in Dundalk, knows the "Dundalk complex." As much as he respects his home town, Mr. Parlett, 41, worked hard to erase his Dundalk accent and elude blue-collar drudgery.

Growing up, "I saw a bunch of people going to work every day because they had to go to work," he says. Later in life, those elders often gave up on getting a degree because they "were told all their lives, `You grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood, that's all you'll ever be,' " Parlett says.

He now lives in Pikesville, but his 18-year-old son, Shawn Parlett, remains in Dundalk and attends Dundalk High School. He participated in the project, too. Father and son found much to honor and record during that blistering week last July.

As an adjunct teacher of writing on Dundalk's community college campus 12 years ago, I met students in the grip of the Dundalk complex. Many of them older than I, they didn't think they could write. They weren't supposed to be able to write. They were from Dundalk.

But being from Dundalk was precisely why they were able to write stories so vivid they fairly breathed on you.

Talking to Charley Echols, at 82 the oldest photographer in the project, that same eloquence comes through: As he prowled his lifelong home last year, he looked for things that are still there, that he remembered from 50, 60 years ago, like the turntable bridge over Bear Creek.

Mr. Echols doesn't seem to have the Dundalk complex. Perhaps being able to remember your community in a bright light protects you from them.

A good reason for Dundalk residents and non-residents alike to see "A Week in the Life of Dundalk."

The photography show continues through May 1 in the Dundalk Gallery of CCBC Dundalk. For information, call 410-285-9792.

Stephanie Shapiro is a Sun features writer.

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