Our Charm City is experiencing a dumbing-down

Essay: Baltimore might dominate in the world of sports, but its cultural losses lately speak volumes.

March 31, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's biggest chain of bookstores is closing. Its flagship public radio station is up for sale. Of the city's two most popular art museums, one hasn't displayed its showpiece collection for nearly two years. The other will soon close most of its galleries until October. And here's how the locals promote the likes of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini: "Opera. It's better than you think."

If all that doesn't convince you Baltimore is undergoing some sort of prolonged municipal lobotomy, descending into the philistine wallow its detractors have always accused it of inhabiting, then check out the brainless Babbitry appearing these days on public benches: "Baltimore. The Greatest City in America."

Welcome to the new Indiana, dumber by the minute and proud of it, because our football team can beat yours. (Hoosiers, hold the hate mail. It will only prove you're provincial.)

And, wait ... this just in. According to the latest federal census, Baltimore's residents are deserting the place so quickly that the city is now actually less populous than Columbus, Ohio. Further evidence that those bumper stickers saying "I city life" have become almost pathetic in their earnest desperation, especially when the cars sporting them wobble through yet another pothole on their way to yet another bookstore's "going out of business" sale.

Who would have guessed that NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was actually prescient when he advised the city a few years ago to forget about building an expensive new stadium. Build a new museum instead, he said. We hooted him down and built the stadium. But maybe he was only foreseeing the post-Super Bowl events of 2001.

OK. Time for a deep breath. A pause for perspective.

After all, this is still the home of America's first free public library, the Enoch Pratt, which nowadays is even open on Fridays. The American Visionary Art Museum is still one of the trendiest galleries in the land. The Baltimore Museum of Art will stage its grand re-opening April 22, returning the amazing Cone Collection to its rightful place. And even if the downtown Walters Art Museum is closing most of its galleries in May, it'll reopen better than ever in October after a renovation.

While there are fewer places every week to buy a good book in Baltimore, some pretty good authors are still writing here: Madison Smartt Bell, Anne Tyler, Lucille Clifton and Taylor Branch, just to name four.

On the other hand, it isn't like we've had a great literary reputation all along. H.L. Mencken made his name mostly by critiquing the Greats, not by emulating them. Edgar Allan Poe called Richmond home and made his name in New York. He came to Baltimore to die. So did Thomas Wolfe. And F. Scott Fitzgerald only moved here to keep tabs on his wife's treatment for mental problems.

There does seem to be an upside to getting dumber. Just look at what has happened to local sports teams. The Ravens won the Super Bowl. The Terps are in the Final Four. And if you think this isn't some sort of cosmic compensation at work - mental, Down; physical, Up - then you've never heard of, "Pittsburgh, City of Champions." If the terrible Orioles somehow make it to the World Series, expect the Johns Hopkins University to relocate to Northern Virginia.

Speaking of the Orioles, they've helped dumb down the city, too, most recently by letting the team's best educated player (Mike Mussina, a Stanford grad) slip away to New York, and a few years ago by letting baseball's most erudite play-by-play announcer, Jon Miller, slip away to San Francisco. Nor did it help when the Orioles replaced Miller with bland yes-men, who insist on referring to the owner as "Mr. Angelos," a title they don't even use for Cal Ripken, not that we'd want them to ("Mr. Ripken swings and chops a bouncer to short.")

Slim evidence, you say? We've got more. What's still the hottest growth market in Baltimore restaurants? Meat joints. Such places as Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Shula's (owned by a football coach, no less; here's the only thing a football guy can tell you about good eating: "Make mine medium rare.")

What's the fastest growing retail chain in the Baltimore area? Wal-Mart. OK, so that's true everywhere. Nobody said America was getting any smarter, either.

Then there are those ads for the Baltimore Opera. They focus on the cheap melodrama, the sex, the blood and guts, sounding more like promos for Oprah than opera.

An ad promoting "Rigoletto" touted, "Love, lust, a body in a sack." It's the same ambulance-chaser mentality used by local TV news broadcasts (which reminds us, can any city where TV personality Marty Bass is considered funny ever be taken seriously by anyone with better than a high school education?).

But the worst part of the ads are the tagline: "Opera. Better than you think. It has to be." Which is another way of saying to everyone in Baltimore: "Opera. You're all too stupid to know what it's really like, so why don't you think of it as a soap opera howled in Italian and give it a try."

And guess what. The ploy works, boosting attendance. Somewhere in our future maybe we'll hear: "Wagner's `Ring,' Tony Siragusa with a spear."

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