Charmless?

A controversial new book shreds the image of Baltimore, lumping it with the worst cities in America

November 27, 2006|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,sun reporter

Baltimore? Dave Gilmartin clearly has yet to "Get in on it."

Contrary to the city's new tourist slogan, contrary to its being named last year as one of the top 10 summer travel destinations in the world, and maybe just plain contrary, Gilmartin has proclaimed Baltimore one of "The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America."

His new book by that name trashes 50 cities he says range "from the truly miserable to the just plain awful," all of which were nominated and voted on over the Internet.

Far from scientific, the author admits, the book is intended as satire - a send-up of all the best-places-to-live lists, magazine articles and almanacs. Still, it doesn't pull any punches, borders at times on scathing and, even before its release late last month, had caused hurt feelings from Georgia to South Dakota.

The book offers the following in its profile of "Charm City," underneath a photo of a "Greatest City in America" bench in a trash-strewn lot:

Actually Charming: No

Ideal for: Black Market Gun Dealers ... Drug Runners, TV Cops.

Cultural Highlights: Auto Theft, STD Clinics, Getting Mugged on the Steps of Your Own Home, Overpriced Crabs ...

It doesn't get any better after that for what once called itself "The City That Reads" (but might change its mind after this book).

Just who is Dave Gilmartin, and why is he saying these terrible things?

His publicist at St. Martin's Press calls him "an expert on sprawl, crime, boredom, and ugliness" who "traveled the country in search of the very worst towns and cities in America."

In reality, "Dave Gilmartin" is a pseudonym being used by a 30-year-old New York advertising copywriter - raised in South Jersey, schooled at a Boston-area (but not Harvard) university - who admits to never setting foot in many of the cities and towns included in the book.

He said he doesn't have to go to Detroit to know that it stinks. "I think enough evidence exists," he said in an interview.

Both Gilmartin and his publicist declined to reveal his real name, which he says he wants to keep secret for his own safety.

Even before its release last month, the book had stirred up reaction on Internet forums in Georgia, home of three towns named in the book. The mayor of Mitchell, S.D., offended with Gilmartin's portrayal of his town as "corn-obsessed," has challenged him to a radio debate. Gilmartin says he plans to accept, though he admits the fact that he's never been to Mitchell could put him at a disadvantage.

Gilmartin said the idea for the book arose in a discussion with his editor. "The `Best Places' lists came up, and it just sort of came together as something that would be good to satirize."

Gilmartin posted messages on all the public Internet forums he could find, including every Craigslist in the country, posing the question, "What's the worst town in your state?" After tallying the results, he sought additional comments, via e-mails, from those who had responded and, using their comments and his own, compiled the book.

The 50 cities are not ranked, and their selection was based on both the voting, his research (primarily the 2000 Census and crime data from Sperling's Best Places) and his own "expertise" when it comes to bad places.

"I grew up in New Jersey, which is what really developed my eye for this. If you were raised by wolves, you would know a thing or two about pack animals. I know a crappy town when I see one," he said.

Gilmartin said Barstow, Calif., got the most votes for worst place. Baltimore, he said, wasn't too far behind - "probably in the top five," he said.

"Detroit may get most of the press, but it's Baltimore that boasts the nation's highest big-city murder rate," Gilmartin wrote in the book. "Meanwhile, murder convictions have plummeted to an all-time low, due mainly to the fact that witness intimidation (i.e., more murder) is something of a cottage industry."

The book includes brief comments from the Internet contributors, all of which are genuine, Gilmartin says, though not all have real names attached to them.

In the case of Baltimore, at least two of them are real.

"Baltimore: the city where people get mugged in church," wrote Michael Tully, a self-described writer/director/musician/house painter who lives in Mount Airy and says he has been a friend of Gilmartin's for several years. Tully also offered his two-cents worth on Dundalk in the book: "White Trash Ghetto at its most terrifying. Shirtless four-year-old children stomp down the sidewalks with the authority of a hardened criminal."

Tully said in an e-mail that he doesn't expect anyone to get angry about his comments: "I would be truly disappointed in any human being who would take offense to some random moron's comments in a book that is clearly just trying to be funny."

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