Showcase our heritage, but remember to add color

Pig meter, gorilla fight merit mention on tour

July 18, 2005|By Michael Olesker

I LOVE the idea of the city's new Heritage Walk, even if we did swipe the idea from Boston. They've got their history, we've got ours. They've got Paul Revere and John Hancock, we've got Francis Scott Key and Frederick Douglass. On Boston's tour, which they call the Freedom Trail, they've even got a graveyard in the heart of town where some of the famous Founding Fathers are buried. I was there with my wife a few years ago. On one tombstone, we saw the name Franklin.

"That must be Ben Franklin," said my wife.

"Can't be," I said. "He was from Philadelphia."

"Then which Franklin is it?" my wife said. "Aretha?"

This tells us a few things: that my wife has a puckish sense of humor, and that many of us need a little brushing up on our American history. Also, it is never too late to feel proud of that history, and maybe even cash in on it.

Thus we had that nice little ceremony at Harborplace the other day, with the city of Baltimore launching its Heritage Walk. It is designed to take everybody through centuries of proud and patriotic local history. The Constellation's on the tour, and so is the Civil War Museum. The Carroll Mansion's listed, and so is City Hall. Tourists will spend a few bucks and get to learn Baltimore's glorious role in American history. Locals can, too.

My question is: When they get to City Hall, will they tell us the bland official history of a hundred years ago, and leave out some of the unofficial modern history? When they give us the Great Man (and Woman) version of events, will they remember that glorious evening when City Councilman Michael Mitchell, in his maiden speech on the council floor, paid inspiring tribute to the various Founding Fathers, such as James Madison.

Afterwards, Councilman Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro approached Mitchell and airily remarked, "This guy Madison sounds pretty good. Who is he?"

It's important, in other words, to hold on to both history and local color.

Cities are formed by history, but history's formed by characters. They bring their idiosyncratic flair to each new day, and out of this comes a community's true charm. Several weeks ago, we had Frommer's, the international travel guide, declare Baltimore one of the top 10 summer destinations in the entire world. They didn't do this because we're just like everybody else. They did it because we're unlike anybody else. We haven't caved in to homogenization.

And neither should the telling of our history.

Visitors to Fort McHenry will be told of its glorious connection to Francis Scott Key. But who will speak for Wally Orlinsky? The late City Council president, wishing to honor America on its 1976 bicentennial, created what he intended to be the world's largest birthday cake. It was 24 feet wide and 65 feet long. It had 200 candles and weighed 73,000 pounds. The idea was to show it on national TV from Fort McHenry. Then history was written.

As the cake rested on a barge in the harbor, a downpour washed 3,000 pounds of red, white and blue icing into the Patapsco. A few nights later, a second rainstorm turned what was left of the cake into mush. Bombs bursting in air? This was Baltimore's bicentennial bomb, historic in its own way.

At last week's Inner Harbor ceremony launching the Heritage Walk, Mayor Martin O'Malley declared the tour "a celebration of things that are unique and historic. And most of it's within walking distance."

He was thinking about the Baltimore Maritime Museum, and the Flag House, and the World Trade Center. These are swell. But, directly across the street from the World Trade Center was Eddie Bunn's old saloon on Pratt Street, before the neighborhood went upscale. It's where the legendary John LaVeck showed up one day with a pig on a rope. LaVeck tied the pig to a parking meter and went into the bar -- but not before depositing coins in the meter. He didn't want the poor pig to get ticketed.

That's what I mean about characters. The mayor wants to talk about Heritage Tour's "walking distance" from the harbor? So take a little stroll over to Washington Boulevard, in glorious Pigtown. That's where the old boxer, Wild Man Joe O'Connell, used to punch people. He did this for profit, though not much. Once, during the Depression, Joe went 10 rounds for $20. Once, he fought a gorilla for $50. He lost, but at least it was quick. Another time, he fought a kangaroo for a dollar a minute on a Pigtown parking lot and made $8 before the kangaroo got serious. Shouldn't that parking lot be on somebody's Heritage Tour?

Little Italy's on the tour. Beautiful. Somebody should tell the story of that Election Day when Mayor Tommy D'Alesandro (the elder) and John Pica (the elder) drove through the neighborhood and heard the bells of St. Leo's tolling for some poor soul's funeral. D'Alesandro turned to Pica, who assured him of the dearly departed: "Don't worry -- he'll vote."

For my money, this is what gives a city is color. When Frommer's called Baltimore one of the best places to visit, some people laughed. Not me. What makes Baltimore great is precisely the offbeat stuff, the characters whose stories are passed through the years and give us our unofficial sense of a Heritage Walk.

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