Television overlooks insightful city story

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Documentary: Networks appear to have neglected `History Hill,' which offers a glimpse inside a Baltimore neighborhood.

September 12, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Six girls - three black, three Jewish - came together earlier this year to record the story of Reservoir Hill, a Baltimore neighborhood whose changing demographics reflect the story of the city.

You probably haven't seen much like it on the local news. It's not that kind of story: The girls' tale blends history with the here and now. What conflict exists doesn't involve gunshots or sirens. The teens' work wouldn't be considered ratings-friendly.

Their 15-minute documentary, laced with flashes of humor and verve, isn't scheduled to appear on television, although it might attract a mention. Yet their youthful work provides a more illuminating window on our region than much of the overheated ambulance-chasing that passes for reporting on Baltimore's commercial stations.

With the encouragement of Beth Am Synagogue and the civic group Kids on the Hill (both anchored in the neighborhood), these six kids, now high school freshmen, interviewed people who had lived there over the years. Some of those people talked about a racially separated area where blacks and whites once lived near one another but not together.

"I grew up in a very, very segregated environment, and I had no consciousness whatsoever," an older congregant of the synagogue told his youthful interrogators. "I was completely ignorant of social problems, and that we grew up in a very segregated time."

An African-American resident recalled: "In the movies, we had to stay in the back. As long as you stayed in your neighborhood, it wasn't no problem."

One girl asked: "What if you didn't stay in your neighborhood?" He wryly replied, "Well, then, you had a problem."

In a rough cut of the documentary, the youths re-enact several scenes intended to depict periods in the area's past, including sit-ins to protest racist housing codes. Archival photographs and present-day footage were woven together in the tape, which was put together with the assistance of Wide Angle Community Media. (The documentary, called History Hill, is scheduled to be shown tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m. at the Creative Alliance, 413 S. Conkling St. For information, call 410-276-1651.)

"I go to synagogue in this neighborhood, and outside this project I did not have a very extensive relationship with it," said one Jewish girl who attends Beth Am.

An African-American student who helped create the video said: "I really didn't know that Jewish people lived in my neighborhood and the way life really was around here."

Smoke but no fire

Flipping through the local channels on any given evening, other Marylanders would be unlikely to learn such context about their region, either.

One recent exception: on WBFF (Channel 45) last week, Kathleen Cairns executed a thoughtful, well-paced piece about development in Howard County. The Rouse Co.'s plans for new shopping centers were so intrusive that many residents felt they broke with the principles that guided Columbia founder and planner Jim Rouse. Cairns and her station gave the topic time enough to be explained and understood.

Viewers don't get to see stories like that very often. Instead, they tend to encounter loud music and sober-faced anchors barking, often about relatively minor events.

For example, on Aug. 22, Jayne Miller of WBAL-TV (Channel 11) delivered a live report at 5 p.m. from outside police headquarters. Anchors Jeff Pegues and Marianne Bannister each said in a joint introduction that it was an exclusive investigative report by Miller.

The word "exclusive" appeared on screen in big letters for about 40 seconds of the two-minute report. A caption bearing the station catch phrase "11 Investigates" appeared throughout the segment.

Here's what was uncovered by Miller, the station's unrivaled ace: a police report stating that some thousands of dollars worth of gas masks, tear gas canisters and bullet-proof vests were missing from a police department storeroom. Most of the gear was outdated. But, as a police spokeswoman explained to Miller, police were investigating the disappearance as a burglary, because a chain locking the storeroom had been severed.

All that smoke and so little fire. It makes a guy wonder what the station would do to get your attention if, for argument's sake, there were a major terrorist attack on the United States. When such a scenario did play out yesterday, as it turned out, the station adopted a subdued, sober tone appropriate to the occasion.

WBAL's report that August night was an exclusive, all right. It also happened, through no discernible fault of Miller, to be off-kilter. An hour after the first report, Bannister introduced what was still being called an "11 News exclusive": Miller's rueful admission that police officials hadn't known that a police supervisor had opened the storeroom himself on the night of a train derailment. He wanted to make sure that officers could grab the masks in a hurry if there had been another release of toxic gas.

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